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The War on Breast Cancer

At the annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, Dec. 9-13, researchers and physicians traded the latest information on drug discovery, ongoing clinical trials, the genetics of cancer, preventive therapies, and more. Bloomberg's Rob Waters filed these dispatches from the meeting.

Herceptin Helps Deliver a Warhead

Roche (RHHBY) and ImmunoGen reported on a "guided missile" combination drug called T-DM1 that shrank tumors by 30% or more in one-third of critically ill, advanced breast cancer patients in a trial. The therapy combines Roche's Herceptin with a second, potent cancer-killing drug from ImmunoGen, with Herceptin acting as the guidance system, using its ability to home in on cancer cells to deliver the treatment directly to its target.

Jason Kantor, an analyst for RBC Capital Markets in San Francisco, says the combination therapy has the potential to replace the use of Herceptin alone for patients whose breast cancer has spread. The news capped a strong year for ImmunoGen, which has seen its shares more than double this year under CEO Dan Junius.

There was additional good news for Herceptin, which had sales of $4.7 billion last year. A separate study at the meeting added to existing evidence that the drug can help breast cancer patients with the gene variant known as HER2 survive for five years after they are diagnosed. Women taking chemo drugs called anthracyclines in combination with Herceptin fared better than women taking the chemo without Roche's drugs.

Stronger Bones Build Resistance

Two separate studies discussed at the symposium showed that bone-building drugs such as Merck's (MRK) Fosamax, Novartis' (NVS)s Zometa, and Roche's Boniva may cut older women's risk of breast cancer. One paper, drawing on data from the ongoing Women's Health Initiative, a large study backed by the federal government, showed that postmenopausal women taking either Fosamax or another drug in the same class had a 32% lower rate of developing breast cancer. A smaller Israeli trial found a 29% reduction.

Some researchers concluded from these and earlier studies that patients get protective benefits from any of the drugs in this class, known as bisphosphonates. And women may not need to be on the drugs any longer than one full year to reap lasting results, one researcher said, because the chemicals remain in the bones for a year or more.

New Hope from Old Drugs

Onyx Pharmaceuticals (ONXX) and Bayer (BAYRY) said their Nexavar pill, sold in more than 70 countries to treat cancers of the liver and kidney, extended the lives of women with advanced breast cancer by delaying growth of malignancies that had spread or recurred. Tumors in two-thirds of women treated with Nexavar and the chemotherapy paclitaxel shrank by at least 25% and were stable for an average of 8.1 months. About half of those on paclitaxel alone had shrinkage, and they were stable for 5.6 months, the study found. If Nexavar is approved for late-stage breast cancer, the market could be substantial: an estimated 57,000 U.S. women are afflicted, according to Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst Christopher Raymond.

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