New Breast Cancer Drug Perjeta From Roche Is "Unprecedented" In Extending Lives, Just In Time For Awareness Month

Just in time for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche is giving us a reason to celebrate with those pink ribbons. According to reports from clinical trials, Roche's breast cancer drug Perjeta displays "unprecedented" life-extending effects, helping patients live an average of 15.7 months longer than they would on chemotherapy and an older drug. 15.7 months, or nearly a year and a third, is a significant amount of time for metastatic breast cancer patients, who are, on average, given two to three years to live after their diagnosis. Perjeta, then, has the capacity to increase that time by 50 to 75 percent.

According to Roche's reports, the median survival time for patients who took both Perjeta and the older Roche drug Herceptin was 56.5 months, or about four and a half years. Patients who didn't take Perjeta lived for a median of 40.8 months, or just over three years. Researchers say that this may be the longest survival time achieved by any breast cancer drug to ever hit the market. When it comes to metastatic cancer, or cancer that has spread beyond its point of origin, the average drug-induced life extension has been a maximum of a few months. But Perjeta has turned the oncology field upside down in the best way possible.

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Though Perjeta was first approved two years ago, scientists have taken great pains to conduct a thorough initial study to determine the effectiveness of the drug. More than 800 women participated in the study, which quickly showed that Perjeta was key to lengthening the progress-free period, or the amount of time these women lived without the cancer spreading or getting worse. But it took longer to collect final data on how long the women survived as a result of the treatment.

The incredible findings are being publicized at Sunday's annual meeting of the European Society for Medical Oncology in Madrid, where Dr. Sandra M. Swain of the MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, who led the Perjeta study, will be presenting. "We’ve never seen anything like this before," Swain said, "It’s really unprecedented to have this survival benefit."

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Dr. Sandra Horning, Roche's chief medical officer and head of product development, said in a statement,

Adding Perjeta to treatment with Herceptin and chemotherapy resulted in the longest survival observed to date in a clinical study of people with HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer. [The survival results are] a magnitude of improvement we rarely see in clinical trials in advanced cancer.

The drug was tested on patients who were HER2 positive, which represents about 25 percent of all breast cancer cases. HER2 is a protein that accelerates the growth of cancerous tumors, and Perjeta binds to part of the protein, working to block it. When taken in conjunction with Herceptin, which binds to another part of the HER2 protein, the results are extra effective, which is why researchers are suggesting the two treatments in tandem.

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Swain called the results of the clinical trials "phenomenal," and noted that "the survival improvement of nearly 16 months" is unheard of in these types of cancer. And beyond the length of survival, Perjeta has also proved groundbreaking in reducing the chances of breast cancer's fatality. In fact, women who received the drug reduced their risk of death by 32 percent when compared to those who only received Herceptin and chemotherapy.

Even doctors and researchers uninvolved with the study applauded its benefits, with Eric Van Cutsem of the University of Leuven telling Reuters,

I think these data are really compelling. When you see in breast cancer such a big change in survival with not a lot of cardio-toxicities then that is really practice-changing.

Dr. Edith A. Perez of the Mayo Clinic echoed these sentiments to the New York Times, calling the results "impressive," and noting "Usually we see two months of improvement." After receiving FDA approval back in 2012, Perjeta has already become the standard in breast cancer treatment in the United States, but it is not without its costs.

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Currently, projections for Perjeta sales place the groundbreaking drug at $3.1 billion every year by 2018, especially with the buzz that oncologists are expected to generate after seeing the trial results. Already, Roche has reported sales of $408 million in the first half of this year alone, with $250 million, or over 60 percent of those sales coming from the United States. This represents a fourfold increase in revenue from the same period last year.

And these profits will be due largely to the fact that the treatment is very expensive. In the US, Perjeta currently goes for $5,900 a month. Herceptin stands at around $5,300 a month, and while some have pointed out that both these prices are significantly cheaper than other new drugs, which can cost upwards of $10,000 a month, it should be noted that Perjeta and Herceptin are meant to be taken together. That means that the total monthly cost for Roche's treatment would run just under $11,000.

Of course, it's difficult to put a price tag on life, and considering the phenomenal strides Perjeta and Herceptin have made in extending a patient's wellbeing, the drugs are certainly well worth the money. And if nothing else, experts have noted that Perjeta gives doctors more time to manage their patients health, and perhaps make their way toward a real cure for cancer.

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