Changing the doses to treat aggressive breast cancer

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Jim Mertens


Is it possible to get the benefits of chemo without the side effects?

Researchers are looking into a new treatment for an aggressive form of breast cancer that is showing some promise.

Almost 300,000 American women will hear the words, “You have breast cancer” this year alone.

One in four of those breast cancer diagnosis will be HER2-positive. 

It’s an aggressive form of breast cancer and is more likely to recur than HER2-negative breast cancer.

HER2 positive cancers produce a protein that drives the growth and spread of cancer.

“The patients with HER2 driven or positive breast cancer, they actually start losing these T-cells and so they lose that immunologic response,” explained Dr. William Gwin of the University of Washington School of Medicine Cancer Institute.

HER2 positive breast cancer tests positive for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) which is a protein that promotes the growth of cancer cells.

In one of every five breast cancers, the cells have extra copies of the gene that makes the HER2 protein.

HER2-positive breast cancers tend to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer.

A phase one clinical trial is underway with advanced HER2 positive breast cancer patients for the oral therapy alpha-TEA in combination with the antibody drug herceptin, also known as trastuzumab.

Alpha-TEA works by activating T-cells.

“We can boost those and drive those T-cells that target HER2 and sort of restore that immune response against HER2,” said Dr. Gwin.

They are attacking cancer cells but leaving the normal cells alone.

“It does seem to have similar effects to chemotherapy, but really without the side effects,” Dr, Gwin added.

Alpha-TEA reduces cancer growth by stimulating the body’s immune response against the tumor.

Trastuzumab is a targeted therapy that attaches to HER2 receptors on the surface of cancer cells.

This blocks the signals that tell the cells to grow and might tag the cell for the body’s immune system to get rid of it.

The hope is that adding alpha-TEA to trastuzumab therapy will work better against HER2-positive breast cancer than trastuzumab alone in cases that have become resistant to traditional treatment.

“It’s not an I.V. medicine but a pill that they would take at home,” said Dr. Gwin.

“Folks may have had a lot of chemotherapy in the past with a lot of side effects and we hope this provides a new avenue of therapy that provides an anti-cancer effect and anti-cancer immune response, without the long term side effects that we see with a lot of our standard agents.”

The trial is ongoing.

If you want to learn more or take part in the trial, contact the University of Washington Medical Center Cancer Vaccine Institute in Seattle at 1-866-932-8588.

Dr. Gwin says the trial is focusing on patients who have been unresponsive to standard treatments.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at