Our weekly roundup of the latest news in the world of health.
A conference this week produced news about breast cancer treatment using both drugs and radiation. Two studies reported promising results on new treatments for advanced breast cancer. Another study showed lower survival with a more limited type of radiation treatment. A fourth study found that a gene test may predict which women with very early breast cancers need radiation. A U.S. cabinet official decided this week to block over-the-counter sales of the "morning-after pill" to girls under age 17. That's the current rule. However, drug regulators had wanted to remove it. A report released this week said that low-risk prostate cancers may need a new name. A less-scary name might encourage men to avoid treatment they probably don't need. The expert panel that wrote the report said more research is needed on monitoring these men to figure out when or if they need treatment.
This Issue: 2 New Drugs for Fighting Advanced Breast Cancer No 'Morning-After Pill' Without ID, HHS Says New Name for Low-Risk Prostate Cancer? Studies Look at Breast Cancer Radiation
In the News:
2 New Drugs for Fighting Advanced Breast Cancer
Researchers announced promising results this week for 2 new medicines for advanced breast cancer. The drugs delayed tumor growth for 4 to 6 months longer than other drugs. The newest drug, pertuzumab, is for women whose tumors make too much of a protein called HER2. The study included 808 women. They were randomly divided into 2 groups. One group received the new drug as well as two standard drugs, Herceptin and docetaxel. The other group just received the two standard drugs. In those who got the new drug, the cancer did not get worse for about 18 months. That compares with 12 months with standard treatment. Genentech, which makes pertuzumab, has applied for U.S. approval. The other drug study involved everolimus (Afinitor). It is used now for transplants and some other cancers. The study included 742 women. Their tumors were growing despite treatment with hormone-blocking medicines. All of them were given a medicine they had not tried before, exemestane. Some also received everolimus. In this group, cancer did not get worse for an average of 7 months, compared with 3 months for the other drug alone. The Associated Press wrote about the studies. They were presented at a conference and published online by the New England Journal of Medicine.
No 'Morning-After Pill' Without ID, HHS Says
U.S. drug regulators wanted to let even young teens buy a "morning-after" pill right off the drugstore shelf. But their boss has overruled them. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, announced her decision this week. The Associated Press wrote about it. Some girls as young as 11 can get pregnant, Sebelius said. The maker of the Plan B pill didn't show that girls this young could understand how to use it without an adult's help, she said. Plan B contains a larger dose of the hormones in birth control pills. Taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, it prevents pregnancy. Any age group can get it with a prescription. No prescription is needed for those who can show an ID proving they are at least 17. Medical and women's rights groups said the secretary's ruling put politics ahead of science. President Obama, the father of two young daughters, said the decision showed "common sense." Teva Pharmaceuticals, which makes Plan B, has not decided on its next steps. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took another look at the existing rule under an order from a federal court.
New Name for Low-Risk Prostate Cancer?
Low-risk prostate cancer may need a new name to encourage more men to avoid treatment they may not need, an expert panel said this week. More research also is needed on the best way to monitor these men, the panel said. The U.S. National Institutes of Health appointed the panel of experts. It found that more than half of the prostate cancers diagnosed today fall into the low-risk category. Long-term follow-ups show that only about 5% of men with low-risk prostate cancer die from it. Treatments for prostate cancer can lead to problems with urine control and sexual function. But more than 90% of men with low-risk prostate cancer decide to get treated right away. Many of these men might be better off with "active surveillance," the panel said. This means having regular prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests and perhaps prostate biopsies as well. But there is no standard way to decide which men should be monitored and when to move from this stage to treatment. The panel said research should address this question. USA Today wrote about the panel's report.
Studies Look at Breast Cancer Radiation
A more limited form of radiation for breast cancer does not work as well as standard treatment, a study released this week found. But among women with very early breast cancer, a gene test may show who can avoid radiation entirely, a different study found. Both studies were presented at a breast cancer conference. A typical treatment for early breast cancer includes surgery, followed by daily radiation to the entire breast for 5 to 7 weeks. Brachytherapy instead uses radioactive pellets. They are put into the cavity where the tumor was for a few minutes at a time for 5 days. The overall radiation dose is the same as for standard therapy. Researchers looked at Medicare records for 130,535 women who had lumps removed and radiation. Within 5 years, 4% of brachytherapy patients needed surgery to remove the whole breast, compared with 2% of those who had standard radiation. The second study looked at genes in women with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). Some doctors consider these to be pre-cancers because very few of them grow. The study tested these cancers for 12 genes. About 75% of women in the study were in the "low-risk" group, with few of these genes. After 10 years, 5% developed an invasive cancer in the same breast. About 11% were "high risk," with more of the 12 genes. In this group, 19% developed invasive cancer. Low-risk women could skip radiation, researchers said. The Associated Press and USA Today wrote about the research.
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