How does Herceptin work for breast cancer?

Origin Print in: Medical News Today
Last updated
Herceptin is the trade name of the drug trastuzumab. It was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 1998 for the treatment of metastatic HER 2 over-expressing breast cancer.

In 2006, it was approved for use in early stage breast cancer, in combination with standard breast cancer chemotherapy.

Studies have indicated that Herceptin improves survival rates in both early and late-stage breast cancer, known as metastatic cancer. In 2014, it was reported that Herceptin, combined with chemotherapy, increased the 10-year chance of survival among breast cancer patients from 75 percent to 84 percent.

How does Herceptin work?

Herceptin is a monoclonal antibody, and it interferes with the HER2/neu receptor.

[breast cancer survivors]

Herceptin is a drug that is helping women to survive breast cancer.

A monoclonal antibody is a biological treatment that is used for some kinds of cancer, either with chemotherapy or alone.

Cells produce proteins, and the monoclonal antibody recognizes and attaches itself to a particular protein.

Human epidermal growth factor receptor (HER) proteins affect the growth, adhesion, migration, differentiation, and survival of cells.

HER is found at high levels on cancer cells. This may explain why cancer cells divide so rapidly.

Different antibodies work in different ways, depending on their target protein, so that different antibodies will be used for different cancers.

The antibodies used in cancer therapy have various ways of attacking the cancer cells.

These include:

  • Triggering the immune system to attack the unwanted cells
  • Blocking the signals that tell the cancer cells to divide
  • Blocking the molecules that prevent the immune system from working
  • Carrying radiation or cancer drugs to the cancer cells.

HER2 is a type of HER that can play a role in the development of breast cancer.

The task of an HER receptor is to transmit molecular signals to the insides of cells from the surface. These signals switch genes on and off.

In breast cancers, the HER2 receptor is faulty. Its “on” switch never goes to “off,” so the breast cells reproduce uncontrollably, and breast cancer results.

Herceptin sticks to the HER2 protein, and it prevents the epidermal growth factor from getting into the cancer cells.

In this way, Herceptin stops the breast cancer cells from reproducing uncontrollably.

Who can use it?

Patients should only take Herceptin if they have overexpression of HER2. It does not benefit patients without overexpression of the HER2 protein.

Around 20 percent of women with breast cancer have Herceptin-sensitive tumors.

Tests can determine whether a patient has too much HER2.

How is it taken?

Herceptin is normally given as an infusion, intravenously. Sometimes it is administered by subcutaneous injection, which is an injection under the skin. It is normally given at intervals of between 1 and 3 weeks.

Currently, patients with early stage breast cancer are treated with Herceptin for one year. Studies have shown that treatment over one year is more beneficial than treatment over 6 months. Extending treatment beyond one year does not appear to add any benefit.

Care for metastatic patients may combine therapies, using pertuzumab, trastuzumab, and paclitaxel together.

For patients with metastatic cancer, it will be used until it is no longer effectively controlling the cancer.

Adverse effects

Herceptin is known to be cardiotoxic, which means that it can damage the heart. In rare cases, it can damage heart cells, and it can lead to congestive heart failure (CHF).

Because of this, patients usually need to be assessed for heart function before they can use this drug. Additionally, they will need to have their heart function assessed throughout their treatment. Patients with a pre-existing heart condition should not take Herceptin.

Cardiac damage is the most serious potential side effect. However, recent studies show that most women will recover after stopping the drug, and that long term effects are unlikely.

Another potentially serious side effect is lung problems. Rarely, a patient experiences severe shortness of breath or fluid on the lungs, among other symptoms. If lung problems occur, the patient should contact their physician.

A low white blood cell count has also been reported among patients taking Herceptin, and this can be life-threatening. The doctor may check the white blood cell count of patients who are receiving this drug.

Flu-like symptoms appear in about 40 percent of women who use Herceptin , but these are reported to be less severe after the first dose.

Possible side effects of Herceptin include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Pneumonia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Heart problems
  • Headaches
  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Diarrhea
  • Cough and shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Aches and pains.

In rare cases, a patient may develop an allergic reaction and experience breathlessness, itching, and a rash.

However, Herceptin is generally well tolerated. Most patients do not experience significant side effects, and most of the adverse effects can be relieved by medication.

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