PETA Pans Breakthrough in Breast Cancer Treatment

Published January 1, 2006

Studies published in the October 20, 2005 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine indicate Herceptin, a drug already shown to prolong survival in patients with advanced breast cancer, can also cut in half the recurrence of a common form of breast cancer when detected in its early stage.

The development in treating breast cancer is being hailed by experts as “stunning” and “very exciting,” but a major animal rights group is criticizing the breakthrough because animals were used in the testing process.

In the studies, Herceptin, developed and manufactured by the biotech research company Genentech, was used with other chemotherapy after cancer surgery for women with breast cancer linked to a protein called HER2, detected in abnormal amounts in about 25 percent of breast cancer cases in the United States.

“The results are simply stunning,’ Gabriel Hortobagyi, a breast cancer specialist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, wrote in an editorial in that issue of the Journal. The tests “show highly significant reductions in the risk of recurrence, of a magnitude seldom observed,” Hortobagyi noted.

Possible Cure, Says Researcher

Cheryl Perkins, senior clinical advisor for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, called the news “very exciting. It has the potential to change the way doctors treat women with breast cancer who are HER2-positive.”

Perkins expressed caution about the long-term effects of the drug, which have yet to be catalogued, and Herceptin’s side effects, which include a slight chance of congestive heart failure.

Still, she remained optimistic about the development. “Does using Herceptin amount to a cure for breast cancer?” she asked. “We hope so.”

PETA Displeased

One group not enthusiastic about the news is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), because Genentech uses animals in its drug testing, a requirement for FDA approval. (No human tests of a drug are allowed until it passes animal tests ruling out toxicity.)

On its “caring consumer” Web site, PETA notes, “October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and breast cancer advocacy groups will be stepping up their efforts to gain supporters.

“Caring people wouldn’t think of offering up their beloved companion animals for hideous experiments,” the PETA site continues, recommending people make donations to organizations that “support cutting-edge non-animal studies” and not those “which fall back on cruel, archaic and unreliable animal tests.”

“The U.S. drug testing system is antiquated,” PETA Media Liaison Jen McClure said. “The FDA statistics on drug approval in this country tell the story. Of all drugs tested safe and effective on animals, 92 percent fail in human trials.”

Animal Testing Essential

David Martosko, director of research at the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom, replied, “Human life is more precious than animal life. PETA needs to get a grip.

“PETA’s leaders won’t come right out and say it, but they care more about lab rats than sick people,” Martosko said. “If PETA activists are really convinced of their position, the next one who falls gravely ill should decline life-saving treatments that were tested on animals. But that’s not going to happen.

“Without animal testing, we wouldn’t have AIDS therapies, antibiotics, organ transplants, cancer drugs, flu vaccines, X-rays, or hundreds of other medical advances that we all take for granted,” Martosko said.

Use Could Expand

About 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in this country, and the annual death toll is 40,000, according to the American Cancer Society. About 30,000 American women probably will be taking Herceptin for breast cancer in the near future, curing perhaps 7,000 who would otherwise relapse, doctors have predicted.

Genentech intends to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to expand Herceptin’s use to early-stage cancer treatment, spokeswoman Colleen Wilson said in a news release. Doctors are already free to prescribe the drug for early breast cancer on their own authority, she said.

“The strength of the evidence is so overwhelming at this point that it would be almost impossible to withhold this drug from the appropriate group of patients,” Hortobagyi noted in his New England Journal of Medicine editorial.

Randy Hall ([email protected]) is a staff writer/editor for the Cybercast News Service Web site. This article was adapted from with permission.

For more information …

The October 20, 2005 editorial and two research articles on the use of Herceptin with breast cancer patients are available on the New England Journal of Medicine‘s Web site at