Spring brings new hope and new beginnings, and for breakthroughs in cancer treatment, this season is off to a promising start. Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first-ever immunotherapy (atezolizumab), in combination with chemotherapy, for the treatment of breast cancer.

“Immunotherapy is a drug that we’ve been using in other cancer types – lung and bladder cancer – but we’ve never had that opportunity for women with breast cancer,” Dr. Stephanie Graff, Director of the Breast Program at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health, told their local CBS affiliate. “The approval is for women with metastatic – disease that has spread outside of the breast – triple-negative breast cancer.”

Dr. Stephanie Graff, Associate Director of the Breast Cancer Research Program at Sarah Cannon Research Institute

Sarah Cannon Research Institute participated in the trial for this immunotherapy and has a breast cancer patient who is showing no signs of cancer growth after three years of this targeted treatment.

“It’s the first time immunotherapy has worked in such a difficult to treat cancer,” Dr. Graff explained. “It’s very exciting for our breast cancer patients and their families, and to be harnessing the power of the patient’s own body makes it even better.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently granted its first approval to an immunotherapy regimen for breast cancer

Dr. Graff, who also serves as the Associate Director of the Breast Cancer Research Program at Sarah Cannon Research Institute, shares more on what people should know about this cancer breakthrough and why this development is a huge step forward for breast cancer patients.

How common is breast cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer for American women, outside of skin cancer. An estimated 1 in 8 U.S. women (12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime.

And between 10-20 percent of all breast cancers are diagnosed as triple negative — an aggressive form of the disease that does not respond well to traditional treatments.

What is triple negative breast cancer?

Breast cancer is diagnosed based on the presence or absence of three receptors – estrogen, progesterone, and HER-2. These receptors are the drivers for the development and growth of breast cancer.

Triple-negative breast cancer is diagnosed when a pathology report shows a negative result for all three of the common receptors.

Triple-negative breast cancer is considered more aggressive than other forms of breast cancer, making it more likely to spread to other parts of the body and more likely to recur after treatment.

How does immunotherapy differ from other forms of cancer treatment?

Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy that uses targeted drugs to convince the body’s immune system to recognize there is something foreign in the body (cancer) and to attack the cells threatening it. In other words, immunotherapy helps “rev up” the body’s immune system so the body can attack the cancer on its own.

Immunotherapy is administered by an intravenous (IV) infusion, and most patients receive treatment once every two weeks.

What are the side effects of immunotherapy?

A patient’s immune system is stimulated with immunotherapy. Some individuals will get skin rashes or arthritis-type symptoms or other inflammatory conditions that go along with an over-active immune system. We have to keep a close eye on rare, more serious side effects of immune over-activation.

However, the day-to-day treatment with immunotherapy is very well tolerated with fatigue as the biggest side effect.

Immunotherapy, a huge step forward for breast cancer patients

Who will benefit from this targeted form of breast cancer treatment?

This FDA approval is for the 40 percent of triple negative patients whose immune cells express PD-L1 – a cellular pathway that restricts the body’s own immune system from attacking cancer cells.

There is a special marker that oncologists can look for in the immune system around the cancer cells called PD-L1, and if the triple negative breast cancer has that, it responds very well to this treatment.

What does this FDA-approval mean for breast cancer patients?  

For breast cancer patients who have the PD-L1 immune cells, adding this immunotherapy medication to a standard chemotherapy, will not only double the chance someone’s cancer won’t grow in a year but increase patient survival from 15 to 25 months. This is a significant development for patients with a very aggressive cancer.

“Overall, as physicians and researchers, we are learning so much due to clinical trials and other ways to stimulate the immune system,” Dr. Graff said. “We hope to see an explosion of well-designed studies that will continue to push us forward and eradicate breast cancer altogether. This is only the beginning.”

If you have questions about breast cancer treatment, you can speak to a registered nurse 24/7 through askSARAH at (844) 482-4812.

Sarah Cannon, the Cancer Institute of HCA Healthcare, offers integrated cancer services with convenient access to cutting-edge therapies for those facing cancer in communities across the United States and United Kingdom. Sarah Cannon’s cancer programs include individualized patient navigation provided by oncology-trained nurses, more than 1,100 stem cell transplants performed annually throughout the Sarah Cannon Blood Cancer Network, hundreds of clinical trials, and molecular profiling capabilities.