Why Healthy Women Are Taking Breast Cancer Drugs; It's Already Used to Treat Breast Cancer Patients, but Now Scientists Think Tamoxifen Can PREVENT the Disease as Well
Byline: SUZANNE BAUM
LAST summer, just after her 35th birthday, Charlotte Stockton began a course of tamoxifen, the drug used to treat breast cancer.
She was perfectly healthy and had no signs of cancer, but Charlotte decided to take the drug in a bid to protect herself from the disease that killed her mother at the age of 44.
'I was 15 when my mother died,' says Charlotte, from Manchester, who works as a researcher in the NHS. 'After she had a mastectomy, the cancer returned aggressively and she was very ill for a year before she died.
'My mother's death had a huge impact on me. I was conscious I had an increased risk of developing the disease.'
One in ten women in Britain will develop breast cancer, and studies have shown a strong genetic link. It is the most common female cancer in the country, with 45,000 diagnoses and 11,000 deaths from the disease each year.
Tamoxifen was first used for breast cancer in 1969 at the Christie Hospital, Manchester. The drug is given to patients following initial treatment, which can involve surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
It works by blocking the uptake of the hormone oestrogen by cancer cells, stopping them multiplying and preventing the cancer coming back.
A patient takes tamoxifen, usually in pill form, for about five years after their treatment, and the drug has been partly credited for the dramatic fall in deaths from the disease.
But in the Eighties, scientists started to notice that in women taking tamoxifen, the incidence of new breast cancers in their other breast halved.
They speculated that tamoxifen might have another role -- preventing cancer from occurring in the first place. It is thought the drug may bind to oestrogen receptors in cancer cells that are otherwise destined to progress.
SUBSEQUENT studies have shown it can prevent up to 40 per cent of breast cancers in high-risk women. The drug has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the prevention of breast cancer.
Tamoxifen is not yet licensed for this use in Britain and Charlotte is one of a number of women taking part in the country's first trial of tamoxifen as a preventative.
In the trial, at the Genesis Prevention Centre in Manchester, 200 women aged 33 to 46 will take a daily tamoxifen pill for five years.
'All women who attend our family history clinic have an increased risk of developing breast cancer,' says Profes-sor Tony Howell, who is leading the research team.
'Most have at least two firstdegree relatives (parent, sibling or child) with the disease, and some may be carrying the BRCA1 or 2 gene mutation, which is linked to breast cancer.'
Half the women will be allocated tamoxifen and the other a placebo, and all will have regular check-ups and mammograms.
Professor Howell is hopeful the trial will provide positive evidence that may lead to the introduction of tamoxifen as a preventative drug in Britain.
Professor Jack Cuzick, a leading cancer specialist who is working on the trial, believes the research holds great potential.
'Though it is obviously too early to say how successful the trial will be, I am excited by what the outcome will bring.
'Women who are at risk of getting breast cancer and who have a strong family history must be scared and worried about developing it.
'So to know this trial exists will hopefully help relieve some of their anxiety and fear. …