Researchers studied 1,836 patients at 671 clinics around the world who had high-risk HER2-negative early breast cancer and a mutation in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
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A “game-changing” drug has been found to slash the risk of young women dying from breast cancer by a third.
The cancer growth blocker targets the so-called ‘Jolie gene’ BRCA1 gene mutation and has been hailed as a “major step forward” in treating women with early-stage tumours.
Researchers studied 1,836 patients at 671 clinics around the world who had high-risk HER2-negative early breast cancer and a mutation in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
They had undergone standard treatments including surgery, chemotherapy, hormonal therapies and radiotherapy.
The half of participants randomly allocated to receive the twice-daily tablet for a year had a 32% lower risk of dying than the half given a placebo drug.
The 10-year international OlympiA trial reported its preliminary results early after just two and a half because it also showed the drug reduced the chance of breast cancer returning by 42%.
Professor Kristian Helin, chief executive of London’s Institute of Cancer Research, said: “This is a major step forward in treatment of early-stage inherited breast cancer.
“Olaparib has major benefits for this group of patients, increasing their chances of remaining cancer free and potentially being cured after initial treatment.
“We hope olaparib will now be licensed in Europe and approved in the UK for NHS patients without delay.
“Olaparib was the first cancer drug in the world to directly target inherited genetic faults.
“The story of olaparib shows how a fundamental scientific discovery, which identified one of cancer’s weaknesses, can lead to game-changing new treatments.”
The drug had previously been used to treat a small number of patients with other forms of the disease such as ovarian cancer.
Also known by its brand name Lynparza, it works by targeting a protein called Poly ADP-ribose polymerase (PARP) that helps damaged cells to repair themselves.
Cancer cells with a mutation in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes rely on PARP to keep their DNA healthy.
Olaparib stops PARP from repairing DNA damage so the cancer cells die.
It is now expected to be rapidly repurposed by the NHS to help cure up to 2,000 women a year with early stage breast cancer and BRCA gene mutations.
Women with these faults in their DNA repair tend to develop breast cancer at a younger age.
BRCA 1 and 2 cancers account for around 5% of all breast cancers but can be particularly deadly.
Hollywood star Angelina Jolie ’s mother died of breast cancer and Angelina carries the BRCA1 gene mutation. She opted for a double mastectomy due to her increased genetic risk.
OlympiA steering committee chair Prof Andrew Tutt, of King’s College London, said: “Today’s results are great news for many women with inherited breast cancer.
“Most breast cancers are identified in the early stages and many patients will do very well, but for some, the risk of cancer returning remains unacceptably high, even after chemotherapy.
“OlympiA has shown that after selecting women with inherited BRCA mutations through genetic testing, we can use olaparib to directly target the weakness in their cancer and improve their survival.”
The findings which included follow-up on patients for four years is being presented at the European Society for Medical Oncology congress.
Dr Simon Vincent, director of research, support and influencing at Breast Cancer Now, said: “It’s hugely exciting this research shows olaparib could save lives and prevent recurrence in some women and men living with primary breast cancer with an inherited altered BRCA gene, often known as the ‘Jolie gene’.
“This breakthrough is testament to the outstanding work, over the last 20 years, of world-class researchers – including many UK researchers funded by Breast Cancer Now – who have uncovered weaknesses in breast cancer cells and laid the foundations for this discovery.”
The drug, which is taken as a pill, has already been approved in the US and is currently being assessed for use in the UK and on the NHS.