Breast Cancer

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Biological Therapies

Biological therapies are new medicines that attack cancer cells based on their biological features. They are sometimes called targeted therapies because they preferentially target cancer cells rather than attacking all fast-growing cells the way conventional chemotherapy drugs do.

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) is at the forefront of research into new biological therapies, including trastuzumab (Herceptin), lapatinib (Tykerb), and cancer vaccines.

Herceptin

Herceptin is a type of monoclonal antibody therapy. Monoclonal antibody therapy uses antibodies to identify substances on cancer cells that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to these substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading.

Herceptin preferentially attacks cancer cells that make too much of the HER2/neu protein. About 20 percent to 25 percent of women with breast cancer have HER2-positive tumors that may be treated with Herceptin combined with chemotherapy.

Tykerb

Tykerb is a type of drug called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor. This drug can block the effects of the HER2/neu protein in patients with breast cancer that is HER2 positive. Tykerb is often used in combination with chemotherapy or other biological therapies.

Because Herceptin and Tykerb are targeted treatments, the side effects are milder than those of conventional chemotherapy. However, they can have side effects, and some may be serious. For example, in a very small number of women, Herceptin can cause heart problems, so monitoring proactively for heart problems is important.

Other Options

Targeted biological therapies are the subject of active research at SCCA and its founding organizations, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and UW Medicine. Along with the specific therapies described on this page, other biological therapies are available here. These include immunotherapies, such as vaccine therapy designed to prompt a patient’s immune system to attack her cancer, and therapies available to women with advanced cancer, such as everolimus (Afinitor), pertuzumab (Perjeta), and trastuzumab-DM1 (T-DM1).

Your team can give you details about any biological therapies that might be right for you, including therapies available only through clinical studies.