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Posted: June 17, 2008

Breast Cancer Recurrence Sharply Cut with Bone Drug

Women with beast cancer cut their risk of a recurrence by more than one-third by taking a drug used to strengthen bones in breast cancer sufferers, according to European cancer researchers.

Researchers hailed the discovery as critically important to treating breast cancer during a presentation at a meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. In fact, Dr. Michael Gnant of the University of Vienna, who presented the findings, told the Reuters news agency: "I'm convinced it's going to change the landscape."

Gnant told Reuters he expected use of the drug, Zometa, which is sold by Novartis, to become a basic part of the treatment in women with breast cancer. "In these patients, I would expect it is going to be pretty much the standard of care pretty soon," he said.

Gnant and colleagues found that Zometa helped reduce the risk of cancer returning by 36% in women with early-stage breast cancer who were already using hormone therapy as a part of their treatment.

The discovery of Zometa’s benefits grew out of the first large-scale study on whether a drug in the class known as bisphosphonates could reduce the risk of cancer returning.

Known generically as zoledronic acid, Zometa is typically used by oncologists to build up bone mass on breast cancer patients whose disease has spread to the bone. The growth of tumors in bone is common in breast and other cancers.

The European study involved 1,803 pre-menopausal women whose ovaries had been artificially shut down by a synthetic hormone. Shutting down ovary activity is common in Europe, and less so in the United States, when women receive chemotherapy because by reducing estrogen levels in the body, cancer has less “fuel” for growth.

Women in the study were treated with an anti-estrogen drug, either tamoxifen or anastrozole, which is branded as Arimidex. While Arimidex is normally used with post-menopausal women, researchers wanted to see if this approach would have a benefit in younger women.

Each participating woman also was given Zometa to prevent bone loss. In the process, researchers found that this bisphosphonate drug disrupted cancer growth as well, a benefit that had been suggested in previous smaller studies.

"They can act as anti-cancer drugs. This is the first trial to show they actually do," Gnant told Reuters.

Gnant acknowledged that his team is not sure how Zometa actually reduces cancer risk. He said the drug may work by inhibiting cancer cell growth or it may be stopping cancer cells from sticking to an organ as cancer host. Or, he said, it could be a combination of these and other factors.

Meanwhile, larger trials are under way that will give more evidence on the benefits of such bone drugs in inhibiting cancer.

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