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 Herceptin: more hype than hope 
 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled What Doctors Don't Tell You by . View all columns in series

The lead author of the second study, Dr Larry Norton of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, declared, "This is the biggest difference I have ever seen in advanced breast cancer-unlike anything we have ever seen before."

Such was the media hype that few observers noticed that these studies were not only weak, but in fact not proper clinical trials at all. After all, they were neither "blinded" nor had any control groups.

But the press hoopla "created near pandemonium among breast cancer patients, who were desperate to get the latest 'cure'", says cancer industry watcher, Ralph Moss. "It made official approval a certainty." Herceptin duly became licensed for use in advanced breast cancer, and, to date, thousands of patients have already been treated. What effect has it had? Doctors are claiming huge "response rates" to the drug, meaning that tumours have been found to shrink. But the important question for any woman with advanced breast cancer is not "response" but survival. Will Herceptin really prolong my life?

Sadly, the answer appears to be no. The only published graph comparing Herceptin to standard chemotherapy shows at best a marginal and temporary effect on longevity (see box, below right).

As an example of what a truly effective chemotherapy drug can do, compare Herceptin with mistletoe (box, right).

This natural plant poison has been used for decades as a cancer treatment by alternative practitioners in Europe. Although it rarely actually cures cancer, mistletoe sometimes prolongs life into to the magical "five-year survival" bracket, an arbitrary figure that conventional medicine normally counts as a "cure".

Herceptin is just the latest in a very long line of cancer drugs that were first hailed as breakthroughs and miracles, but failed to live up to their promise. In the past, these drugs came and went with the public hardly noticing.

But today, the marketing of modern cancer drugs deliberately uses the public as a key sales tool. It starts by whipping up enthusiasm for the drug-sometimes, as we have seen, with phony statistics. Desperate patients then clamour to be given the drug.

This puts such pressure on the authorities that they cave in-even against their better judgment. NICE Clinical Director Professor Littlejohns is a case in point. In January 2006 he was seriously opposed to Herceptin, but within six months his organization had given the drug official approval.

So where can the public go for reliable objective information? Not to the press, who have consistently shown themselves to be suckers for drug industry hype; nor to cancer doctors, some of whom are in the pay of the drug companies; and not even to patient support groups, because most are propped up by "donations" or "educational grants" from drug companies.

Take the UK charity Cancer BACUP ("informing understanding supporting"). It has told patients that the results for Herceptin in early breast cancer are "impressive" and a "breakthrough", with no critique either of the data or the potential dangers of the drug. They have also consistently pressurized for patients to be given Herceptin, without declaring that one of their funders is Roche itself. In fact, almost 10 per cent of BACUP's income comes from drug companies.

The patient information group Breastcancer.org ("your lifeline to the best medical information about breast cancer") describes Her-ceptin as "a very effective treatment". Last year Genentech, Herceptin's manufacturers, gave over $50,000 to the organization. This 'generosity' helps to give Genentech and Roche a great deal of influence, if not control, of the information flow about Herceptin.

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