Up-and-coming family of drugs breaks breast cancer’s DNA heartstrings

June 14, 2012 | by City of Hope Staff

These drugs may have a funny-sounding name, but many doctors think they might have a serious effect on breast cancer.

Photo of Histologic section of breast cancer Histologic section of breast cancer. (Courtesy of the National Cancer Institute)

They’re called PARP inhibitors, and like many up-and-coming cancer drugs, they’ve been riding a research rollercoaster for the last three years. The drugs’ capacity to fight cancer has excited physicians — as well as patients, who read about the investigational drugs on the Web. Research on the drugs suffered setbacks last year, though, causing some to wonder if they’d ever fulfill their promise.

If the recent annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology is any sign, though, PARP inhibitors are back. Scientists gave 27 presentations on these drugs, including one from George Somlo, M.D., director of breast oncology in City of Hope’s Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research and co-director of the Breast Cancer Program.

Somlo presented a multicenter study of a PARP inhibitor called veliparib along with the DNA-damaging chemotherapeutic drug carboplatin in patients with advanced breast cancer with BRCA mutations. Results were encouraging, Somlo says, and more trials are coming.

PARP inhibitors are interesting because they keep cancer cells from repairing DNA damage, causing the cells to die. Scientists think the drugs may work especially well in cancers with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations or “triple-negative” breast cancers — which are hard to treat.

“This family of drugs is promising because the drugs seem to be a little easier on healthy tissue, which helps reduce side effects, and they may make chemotherapy more effective,” says Somlo, who co-led the study with City of Hope’s Jeffrey Weitzel, M.D., director of the Division of Clinical Cancer Genetics.

Interested in a trial of PARP inhibitors for breast or other cancers? Visit City of Hope’s clinical trials website or the National Institutes of Health's page and type “PARP” into the search box.

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