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Can immunotherapy cure breast cancer?

Written by: Dr Mark Tuthill
Edited by: Laura Burgess

For women who have triple negative breast cancer that has unfortunately spread away from the breast, a new treatment is just becoming available to prescribe. The drug is called Atezolizumab and is given in combination with chemotherapy.

Here, consultant medical oncologist Dr Mark Tuthill explains how the immunotherapy medication works and how it may bring long-term hope in treating women with breast cancer.

What immunotherapy medications are available for breast cancer?

What we've known for a long time is that triple negative breast cancer responds well to chemotherapy but the benefits are usually short-lived. Triple negative breast cancer does have signs that the immune system can attack it. Atezolizumab, which is an intravenous infusion given every three weeks, blocks one of the brakes on the immune system that prevents women's breast cancer from being attacked by their immune system.

By combining Atezolizumab with chemotherapy, we see increased response rates and by that, I mean more women have their cancer shrink after treatment. Those women who get the immunotherapy, given with the chemotherapy, live longer than those women who don't and we know from previous experience of patients treated with immunotherapy treatments that some patients treated with Atezolizumab and chemotherapy will go on to have long term survival in the longer run.

Which patients are they available for?

In other words, their tumours will be controlled by the immunotherapy and chemotherapy for the foreseeable future. It's the most exciting development in triple negative breast cancer we've ever seen in all the time that we've been developing treatments for this illness.

The best available evidence for the use of immunotherapy in breast cancer is for patients who have advanced triple negative breast cancer. A drug called Atezolizumab along with chemotherapy is being approved to prescribe for women with breast cancer. It's clearly been shown to have superior effectiveness over standard treatments and is one of the treatments of the future for women with advanced breast cancer.

Other forms of immunotherapy are in development for other types of breast cancer and, therefore, it would be a good idea to approach your doctor or medical team who are looking after you if you are interested in the treatment. They can discuss what options will be available to you in a clinical trial.

Can immunotherapy cure breast cancer?

This is one of the most exciting areas in breast cancer medicine at the moment. Women who unfortunately develop recurrent triple negative breast cancer, we know from the research that's been conducted so far and from the clinical trial results that some women, about one to two women in ten who receive immunotherapy treatment will go on to have long-term control of their cancers after the treatment.

What do I mean by that? If we have somebody who has breast cancer which is growing on their scans, they receive the immunotherapy treatment and then afterwards cancer goes into remission or disappears. We don't know at the moment whether these women have been cured or not, but it's certainly one of the most exciting events or discoveries that we've seen in triple negative breast cancer for a very long time.

Although we can't say for certain whether a woman will be cured, these results do offer hope to women with triple-negative breast cancer that there is the possibility of long term control of their cancers after immunotherapy treatment.

Read more on immunotherapy medications

By Dr Mark Tuthill
Medical oncology

Dr Mark Tuthill is an experienced consultant medical oncologist and an expert in the use of immunotherapy in cancer treatment. Practicing at the Manor Hospital and GenesisCare in Oxford, Dr Tuthill specialises in the treatment of early and recurrent cancer including breast cancer, prostate cancer,kidney cancer, bladder cancer and testicular cancer. Treatment is personalised to each patient's needs and preferences and can include the use of chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, or cancer growth inhibitors.

Dr Tuthill originally qualified from University College London, and trained in Medical Oncology in London at the Royal Marsden, Hammersmith, Charing Cross, and the Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals. In 2015 he was appointed Consultant Medical Oncologist at Churchill Hospital, Oxford, where he acts as principal investigator on a number of clinical trials.

Dr Tuthill’s research interests include tumour immunology, cancer-growth inhibitors, and novel therapeutic drug combinations for the treatment of cancer. He is a principal investigator or sub-investigator for early and late phase clinical trials in tumour types including breast cancer, urological cancers and other tumour types. Dr Tuthill holds a PhD in Tumour Immunology from Imperial College London and regularly presents his research at national and international conferences. He is a clinical ambassador for UCARE (Urology Cancer Research and Education), an independent charity raising funds for research into prostate and bladder cancer, and is a member of The Association of Cancer Physicians.

Dr Tuthill has a medico-legal practice supported by a dedicated a highly professional medico-legal administrative team and medico-legal analysts. He writes clear concise reports to time and client satisfaction.

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