2011 ASCO: Parting Thoughts
As a long-time breast cancer advocate, I’ve attended many scientific conferences, including several annual meetings of the American Society of Oncology (ASCO). The big breast cancer news coming out of ASCO this year was not about treating breast cancer but preventing it. But more about that later.
Oncology research meetings are known for their slides with lots of charts and graphs that have interesting names like forest plot, waterfall graph, Manhattan plot, Kaplan-Meier curve, and — new for me this year — volcano plot. The dots and curves represent people, yet you rarely see a picture of a real person with cancer. The researchers do, however, thank and recognize the contribution of their patients, the men and women who participate in clinical research studies.
Take, for example, the breast cancer prevention study. More than 4,500 women who did not have breast cancer but were identified as being at higher risk for the disease, agreed to participate in this news-making study. The results, presented on Sunday, showed the women who took exemestane (an anti-estrogen drug) for five years were much less likely to develop breast cancer than the women who did not receive the active drug.
In another important study, 500-plus women with metastatic triple negative breast cancer agreed to be randomized (assigned by chance) to receive chemotherapy or chemotherapy plus a new, targeted therapy called iniparib. In this case, the results were considered to be negative because the new drug did not appear to provide additional benefit. But negative results are not all negative because they advance research and our understanding of breast cancer.
Just two years ago, at this very meeting, iniparib made news based on the results of a Phase II trial. The earlier and much smaller trial showed very encouraging results for the women who received iniparib. Though the results from the more recent study are disappointing, they do illustrate the importance of large Phase III trials. It’s also important to note that this Phase III trial was completed very quickly in large part because so many women were willing to participate in the study.
It’s too soon to say whether exemestane will be adopted as a prevention drug or if iniparib will have a place in the treatment of breast cancer, but we all owe our gratitude to the women who participated in these two studies. It’s because of them and the many women before them who have enrolled in other breast cancer research studies that we have made progress against this disease.
There are still many unanswered questions about breast cancer, and Susan G. Komen for the Cure is directing significant dollars for research into the most challenging issues: treating triple negative breast cancer and metastatic disease and strategies for preventing breast cancer, to name a few. Some of this research has already led to new clinical trials that are currently enrolling participants, and I have no doubt we be hearing about the contributions of these women at future meetings.
About the author
Nancy G. Brinker promised her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer forever. In 1982, that promise became Susan G. Komen and launched the global breast cancer movement. Today, Komen is the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures. Thanks to events like the Komen Race for the Cure®, we have invested more than $1.9 billion to fulfill our promise, becoming the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight against breast cancer in the world.