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7 things to know about the new groundbreaking breast cancer treatment

In the past few years alone, medical science has made some great strides when it comes to cancer prevention and treatment — we’ve seen several experimental breast cancer treatments that have been claimed to cure the disease. But it wasn’t until early 2016, when two drugs were used in combination, that the big “cancer cure” seemed like it could become a reality.

At that time, the two drugs, Tykerb (known as Tyverb in Canada) and Herceptin, were already on the market and had been used to treat cancer independently of each other in the past. However, research conducted in England showed that their powers combined might have incredible, cancer-shrinking abilities.

The buzz started in March 2016 when a new study showed the drug combinations’ potential to significantly shrink HER2-positive breast cancer only 11 days after diagnosis. In April 2016, a Lancet study also found the dual-targeted drug therapy to be “active and well-tolerated” among patients with HER2-positive metastatic colorectal cancer. And most recently, in September 2016, an American Association for Cancer Research study confirmed that the two drugs could work as a very active treatment for HER2-positive and hormone receptor-negative breast cancer, when used alongside chemotherapy.

With all the research that’s been released in the past year, here’s what you need to know about this possible game-changing drug therapy:

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1. Scientists have never seen results like this before

The earlier study, which was carried out by the University of Manchester and the Institute of Cancer Research in London, was originally just looking to shrink tumors somewhat before surgery. However, 11 days after the drug combination was administered to breast cancer patients, surgeons found that a number of the tumors had either shrunk significantly or vanished entirely.

“For solid tumours to disappear in 11 days is unheard of. These are mind-boggling results,” study leader Professor Nigel Bundred told Daily Mail.

2. The women who received the treatment had a specific kind of breast cancer

HER2-positive (human epidermal growth factor), to be precise. It’s a more aggressive cancerous gene that occurs in 1 in 5 breast cancer cases. Even though it’s more deadly, HER2-positive breast cancer patients usually respond well to this type of drug treatment.

3. Herceptin alone was dubbed a “wonder drug” when it came out 10 years ago

Herceptin was the first gene-targeted breast cancer drug, and when it appeared a decade ago, it changed the lives of women with HER2-positive breast cancer. Usually given after tumor removal surgery and/or with chemotherapy, it’s been proven to boost the five-year survival rate from 66 percent to 95 percent.

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4. This new drug combination may make chemotherapy for this type of cancer no longer necessary

If given within the first few days of an HER2 breast cancer diagnosis, the combination of Herceptin and Tyverb may do just as well at shrinking tumors as months of chemotherapy would. It all comes down to how the drugs work together to combat the cancer cells from all sides.

5. Here’s how the drugs give the one-two punch

One drug goes to work on the outside of the cancer cells, while the other penetrates the interior of the cells, thereby effectively weakening them. Doctors believe the dual attack on cancer cells is akin to fighting off one strong bully with two smarter, quicker friends. They essentially unarm the cells, blocking their ability to keep growing.

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6. How you take the drugs

Herceptin is given in drip form, while Tyverb can be taken in a pill.

7. There is still more research that needs to be done

While the results are pretty astounding, the study was relatively small — only 257 women with the disease were involved, and out of them, only 66 took the combination treatment. To be sure this treatment is as effective as the scientists believe it to be, more trials and tests will have to be run. However, they remain cautiously optimistic that this early study could be a breast cancer treatment game changer.

Originally published March 2016. Updated Sept. 2016.

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