The benefits of taking Genentech and Roche’s breast cancer drug Herceptin have once again been highlighted in a new study published in the latest issue of The Lancet.

The study showed that women with HER2-positive early-stage breast cancer who took Herceptin (trastuzumab) after surgery and chemotherapy had better survival odds after three years than those who didn't take the drug.

In the Herceptin Adjuvant (HERA) trial, researchers at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London randomly selected 1,703 women to receive the drug for one year after surgery and chemotherapy, while another 1,698 women received no drug after surgery and chemotherapy. All the study participants had HER2-positive breast cancer and were followed for two years.

Researchers found that 90 women died if they were in the observation group, compared with 59 deaths among women who were on Herceptin, corresponding to an absolute survival benefit of 2.7% after three years of follow-up.

The authors of the study said that its long-term value may be limited by the fact that patients in the monitoring group were allowed to switch to Herceptin after one year of observation and there were some serious side effects reported, notably cardiac damage, but in the main the results were positive. Ian Smith, professor of cancer at the Royal Marsden, said: “The survival benefit that has emerged over such a short period – about three years – emphasises the potential of this approach and underlines the importance of developing further specific targeted therapies in breast and other cancers.”

Daniel Hind, a research associate in health economics at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, wrote in The Lancet that the price of treating patients with Herceptin falls within usually acceptable levels of cost effectiveness, an issue that has become a major point in the UK, where the drug costs some £30,000 per year.