Immunotherapy for Breast Cancer

Jennifer Kim

Imagine being given a choice between death or participating in an experiment for a new drug with possibly dangerous side effects; would you take the risk and participate? This is, of course, a difficult decision that requires up to months of thinking, but for some people, this is the only option left as they’re counting down the last moments of their lives.

Triple-negative breast cancer is an uncommon type of cancer that gains its name from missing receptors of the hormones progesterone, estrogen, and the protein HER2. This type of cancer is extremely aggressive and is more likely to spread easily than other cancers. Although triple-negative only accounts for 15% of breast cancers, this is one of the most dangerous breast cancers with agonizing side effects. Unfortunately, because this type of cancer is so uncommon, there has not been much research conducted on treatments to slow down or even prevent this cancer from spreading. However, a recent clinical trial conducted has blown up and caught the attention of scientists who are looking for ways to increase the chances of survival.

The traditional form of treatment for triple-negative breast cancer was chemotherapy, but there weren’t successful results from this method alone. This encouraged scientists to think of powerful combinations of treatments which would defeat cancer cells. In response to this, scientists at Queen Mary University conducted an experiment that combined chemotherapy with immunotherapy. Participants were given Atezolizumab, an immunotherapy drug, once every other week, and Nab-paclitazel, an chemotherapeutic agent, once a week. By the end of this experiment, scientists confidently reached a conclusion that immunotherapy, in combination with chemotherapy, increases a triple-negative cancer patient’s survival rate by 40%. Professor Peter Schmid, the study’s co-author, stated that “by using a combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy we are able to significantly extend lives compared to the standard treatment of chemotherapy alone.

Even with these claims and the results from the experiment, not everyone is on board with the idea that immunotherapy is an effective therapy against triple-negative cancer cells. In fact, some people are calling all of this a hoax and a cruel joke that causes false hope for patients who are suffering. According to Suzanne Hicks, a member of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, what scientists at Queen Mary University are failing to do is disclose important information that go against what they’re portraying immunotherapy to be. “Survivors don’t want only a few weeks, especially if those weeks are difficult and the entrance to end-of-life. They also want quality-of-life.” The opportunity cost of immunotherapy isn’t worth the precious moments patients can spend with their loved ones, which is why participants who were placed in the group receiving immunotherapy were twice as likely to drop out of the trial than participants placed in the group receiving only chemotherapy.

There’s currently not enough strong evidence to confirm that immunotherapy is an effective treatment against triple-negative breast cancer. Although, more and more scientists are being aware of what immunotherapy is and its effects which could lead to more experiments in the future that will hopefully bring a path of light for the patients who are living in complete darkness.