Triple negative breast cancer is a subtype of the disease defined by the absence of hormone receptors for estrogen and progesterone, and lack of expression of a protein called HER2. This subtype is responsible for a disproportionate percentage of breast cancer deaths. Now, a cancer drug developed from a sea sponge could add an extra 5 months of life for women with an advanced form of the disease.

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Eribulin, originally created from a sea sponge, is now made in a lab. The drug stops cancer cells from separating into two cells.

Researchers, led by Prof. Chris Twelves of the University of Leeds in the UK, presented their findings today at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference in Liverpool.

According to the Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) Foundation, this form of the disease occurs more frequently in women of color and is twice as common in black women as in white women in the US. TNBC occurs more often in younger women and those with the BRCA1 gene mutation.

To conduct their study, the researchers analyzed two major phase 3 clinical trials consisting of over 1,800 female participants with breast cancer that had spread to other parts of the body. These trials compared the survival of women treated with a drug called eribulin with women given standard treatment.

The team explains that eribulin was originally created from a sea sponge called Halichondria okadai. Now made in the lab, the drug stops cancer cells from separating into two new cells and is a type of drug called a microtubule inhibitor.

“Eribulin has previously been offered to women who’ve already been through several lines of chemotherapy,” says Prof. Twelves. “But the European Union has recently approved eribulin for patients who have received less treatment for their breast cancer, which means we hope to give more patients another treatment option in the not-too-distant future.”

Results from the study revealed that there was an overall improvement of survival – more than 2 months – in the women treated with eribulin.

However, the researchers found that the biggest improvement was in women with advanced TNBC. Overall, this group of women’s survival improved by almost 5 months. And for women with HER2 negative breast cancer, there was a survival improvement of more than 2 months.

Fast facts about TNBC in the US
  • Around 15% of all breast cancers in white women are TNBC, compared with 30% in black women
  • TNBC recurs more commonly than other breast cancer types
  • Recurrences nearly always occur within first 5 years after diagnosis.

Commenting on the findings, Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, says:

“These results are encouraging and may offer valuable extra time to patients whose cancers have stopped responding to conventional treatments and have few options left. Advanced breast cancer can be very difficult to treat, so these results take us a small, important step in the right direction.”

The researchers add that nearly 90% of cancer deaths are due to metastatic cancer – cancer that has spread to other organs. When breast cancer patients are diagnosed after the disease has spread, the 10-year survival rate is 1 in 10, compared with 9 in 10 for those diagnosed at the earliest stage, making early diagnosis vital for this disease.

But their new research brings hope for those diagnosed at later stages. As Prof. Twelves notes, “New and better treatments are needed for people fighting the disease.”

Ledwick adds that although “eribulin isn’t a cure, it’s an extra treatment option for patients with advanced breast cancer, which can be priceless to them and their families.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested genomic sequencing could help identify women who are most likely to benefit from breast cancer screening.