December 21, 2011 — A new study of Avastin was announced in the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium this month. The results of the AVEREL study, which tracked 424 women who had locally recurrent or metastasized HER-2 positive breast cancer, found that when the women combined Avastin (bevacizumab) with Herceptin (trastuzumab) and Taxotere (docetaxel), there was a 28% reduction in cancer progression and death.
This announcement comes on the heels of a controversial decision by the Food and Drug Administration to pull its approval of Avastin for the treatment of breast cancer. Though the drug showed a benefit in the overall disease-free survival time, the survival endpoint was no different for people treated with Avastin than other medications.
However, this new study suggests that Avastin might be beneficial for a certain type of breast cancer. There is growing evidence that individuals with cancer benefit from individualized treatment based on their specific type of cancer and other “biomarkers” that indicate what drugs might be most effective. Often, cancer patients end up taking a cocktail of different medications based on the nature of their individual disease.
Unfortunately for Avastin, there is no scientific data indicating what biomarkers would help a cancer doctor identify the small number of breast cancer patients whose potential benefit from taking the drug outweighs the significant risk of side effects.
Avastin inhibits an enzyme necessary for the formation of blood cells, which thus inhibits a tumor’s ability to grow by restricting its blood supply. This has been shown to be an effective way of slowing the progression of a variety of cancers, including colo-rectal cancer, kidney, lung, and brain cancer. Like many cancer medications, it comes with a high risk of serious side effects, which include heart attack, bleeding events, hemorrhage, heart failure, perforations in the intestines and stomach, ovarian failure, and deterioration of the jaw.
The news that Avastin might be able to help some breast cancer patients is good news for women who were taking the drug and had seen improvement in the progression of their disease. Since the FDA has rescinded approval of Avastin, it seems likely that insurance companies will also pull their coverage of the expensive treatment. It costs roughly $55,000 per year — significantly more than most people can afford without insurance.