Herceptin Hype

by Helen Lobato


The recent decision taken by the Australian federal government to subsidize the breast cancer drug Herceptin lacks justification.

Last week the Federal Government Health Minister Tony Abbott agreed to list Herceptin on the Pharmacuetical Benefit Scheme. This decision comes after a campaign by patients, advocates and the manufacturer and means that 2000 women with early-stage breast cancer will be given treatment costing $50,000 a year with a cost to the taxpayer of $400 million over four years.

Breast cancer support groups and cancer patients congratulated the federal health minister for his decision. Tony Abbott’s tick of approval means that many women suffering from breast cancer will not have to sell their homes to pay for the drug and Herceptin's manufacturer Roche can expect to earn more than $100 million a year.

From the manufacturers of Herceptin, Genentech we learn that “Herceptin is the first humanized antibody approved for the treatment of HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer.” It is said to target the HER2 protein, which can fuel the growth of breast tumours. This kind of cancer accounts for about 20% of all breast cancer cases. 1

When the results of the Herceptin Adjuvant trial (Hera), a major international study on the use of Herceptin in early stage breast cancer were announced, the attending audience of scientists were understandably amazed. They had just heard that Herceptin could reduce the risk of recurrence of breast cancer in suitable patients by as much as 52%.

The media ran with the story and newspapers and talk back programs made much of the stories of the women who were facing the prospect of selling their homes to pay for the treatment.

But is the hype justified?

The prestigious medical journal The Lancet questioned whether there was enough evidence to give such high accolade to Herceptin. The Lancet reported that trials had been stopped prematurely and that there was the issue of safety.2

A recent investigation onto the Hera trial revealed that "For every 100 suitable patients prescribed trastuzumab (Herceptin), 94 will have been exposed to the side effects without any benefit, at a cost of £400,000 per recurrence prevented.”2

Newstarget.com sums up the Herceptin hype:

One of the main studies being cited in support of Herceptin saw 34 deaths in the control group (2.0% of the participants) and 23 deaths (1.4%) in the group treated with Herceptin. This translates in a 0.6% absolute reduction in deaths. 3

As well as amounting to minimal improvement in outcome, researchers found that 28% of women receiving the novel breast cancer drug Herceptin (trastuzumab) suffered cardiac problems as a result of taking the drug. In 46 of these affected women, the cardiac problems were very severe and required treatment.4

The costs of these new drugs are immense and the health budget will continue to blow out.

What we really have is a sickness industry.

One drug leads to many and in the case of Herceptin there is very little benefit for the women suffering from breast cancer. They will need ongoing treatment in the form of cardiac drugs to treat their potential or established heart failure.

The pattern of listing new drugs on the PBS is now too familiar:

Pharmaceutical companies supply exorbitant drugs that have billions of dollars in earning potential. The new drug is heavily promoted by compliant doctors and media. Consumer groups lobby hard and it’s just a matter of time before the ‘miracle’ drug is subsidized at huge costs to the public purse.

In the words of Dr. Marcia Angell, the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine

"It's really exploiting the desperation of people with a life-threatening illness."5

Can we continue to accept this level of health care?

When do you ever hear the words cause and prevention uttered in the public forum. Breast cancer groups applaud the latest treatments, compliant doctors do the pharmaceutical companies bidding, and the poor public continue to suffer illhealth.

We need real results!

We need to confront the causes of cancer and in this instance breast cancer. We need to prevent the occurrence of more cases of breast cancer.

Some things we can do to avoid breast cancer include:

Avoiding trans fatty acids in margarine and vegetable shortenings, used in most processed foods.

Breast-feed your babies. Women who breast-feed are much less likely to get breast cancer.

Get plenty of sunshine. Breast cancer is less frequent in areas where there is ample sunlight unobscured by smog or fog.

As added insurance, eat oily fish and take cod liver oil as sources of vitamin D.

Drink water free of chlorine and fluorine.

Get plenty of calcium from raw milk and bone broths.6

And a word on the regular mammogram test.

The standard advice to women is to have regular mammograms and thus discover the cancer when small

But what is a mammogram but an xray.

The breast especially in the case of premenopausal women is extremely sensitive to radiation, and in the case of radiation there is no safe exposure. Mammography also provides false tumor reports of between 5 and 15 percent of the time. These false positive results can mean that women are exposed to additional X rays and may lead to necessary stress and surgery.7

Last word comes from the Medical World News: The "biggest problem" is not radiation or cost—the biggest problem is the ineffectiveness of treatment for cancer of the breast. 8


1.http://www.gene.com/gene/products/information/oncology/herceptin/index.jsp?q=herceptin+product+information&sourceid=mozilla-search&start=0&start=0&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official www.westonaprice.org

2. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/5216476.stm

3. http://www.newstarget.com/019313.html