Scientists at Birmingham University have revealed that changing chemotherapy drugs given to women with early stage breast cancer after surgery can reduce the risk of them dying by more than 30 per cent.
Two major clinical trials – NEAT and BR9601 – published today in the New England Journal of Medicine show that adding a drug called Epirubicin to established chemotherapy has a significant impact on patient survival.
Researchers for the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit at Birmingham University and from Edinburgh and Glasgow analysed the experiences of 2,400 women at 75 treatment centres in the UK, making it the largest study of its kind. Four cycles of Epirubicin, an anthracycline which kills cancer cells in a different way from traditional chemotherapy drugs, was added to an established combination known as CMF.
Patients were monitored for more than four years to look at recurrence of tumours and overall survival rates.
Dr Chris Poole, Birmingham University's lead investigator, said: "When these trials were launched, we knew that Epirubicin could help women whose cancers had relapsed, by temporarily controlling advanced incurable disease.
"But there was very little evidence that anthracyclines might help eradicate microscopic traces of secondary cancer present in early stage disease and thus improve their prospects of long term survival or cure.
"The size of the treatment benefit seen each of these studies is dramatic, and surpassed all expectations. The results of these two trials show conclusively that the addition of Epirubicin to traditional chemotherapy has a significant impact on survival in early stage breast cancer.
"These data are all the more impressive, given the size and scope of the NEAT study and the fact that both trials produced near identical results."
These results showed that the addition of Epirubicin to chemotherapy reduced the risk of women dying of breast cancer by over 30 per cent in relation to CMF alone, and remained significant after two and four-year follow-ups.
The studies also revealed the side effects of Epirubicin in combination with CMF were relatively modest with no long term adverse impact on quality of life.
Dr Poole added: "Although some cancer centres are already using Epirubicin-CMF routinely, it still is not standard across the country.
"For the future, we look forwards to the results of more recent studies, which have adopted Epirubicin-CMF as the standard of care against which to trial newer approaches"