Chemotherapy has been a useful weapon in the fight against cancer, and combined with other cancer fighting drugs, it has saved lives. Now another drug is offering further hope. Herceptin, sometimes called Trastuzumab, is a monoclonal antibody that attaches itself to proteins on cancer cells and slows down their growth. These monoclonal antibodies, which fight infection, are produced in the laboratory and developed to affect certain cancer cells. Monoclonal antibodies bind to HER-2, or human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, and have been shown to kill these cells. This drug is now being used both on its own and with chemotherapy.
In the case of Herceptin, the main use has been directed toward cases of breast cancer that have not reacted favorably to other drugs. It is also used in conjunction with other drugs to treat those cancer cells that make too much of the protein HER-2. In approximately 20-30% of occurrences of breast cancer, an overproduction of HER-2 is involved. This produces tumors that commonly grow faster and reoccur. In order to determine if specific instances of breast cancer are HER-2 positive, the level of protein in the tumor is measured through testing.
The use of Herceptin has been approved by the FDA in cases of mestastatic breast cancer, or cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Combined with chemotherapy, according to the National Cancer Institute, and based on a study in 2005, those who were treated with both Herceptin and chemotherapy had a greater survival rate and had fewer instances of recurrence.
Herceptin can be given alone through infusion into the blood stream, or in combination with chemotherapy. Initial doses are administered slowly to determine the patients reaction to the drug and any possible side effects. Unfortunately, as with many drugs, side effects do sometimes occur. The severity is determined on an individual basis, depending on the patient. Given alone, it often produces fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches during the initial doses. In conjunction with chemotherapy, it may also produce upper respiratory infections.
Due to the fact that Herceptin may cause adverse, and sometimes life threatening side effects such as heart failure, lung damage, and hypersensitivity, patients are screened carefully before beginning treatment to determine if any current heart or lung conditions already exist.
Studies are still being done on this drug and its possible effect on other types of cancers. The chief concerns are, of course, the safety and effectiveness of using Herceptin.