BREAKING: Breast cancer drug licensed as preventative measure

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Related tags Breast cancer Clinical trials Research Patient centricity breast cancer treatment Cancer research uk Breast Cancer Now

A breast cancer drug that has been used for many years to treat the disease, has been licensed today (November 7) for use as a preventative measure.

This means that tens of thousands of women in England could benefit from the treatment that trials have shown can reduce the development of breast cancer by almost 50%. The reduction was shown in women who have been through menopause and who are considered medium to high risk having a family history of the disease.

An estimated 289,000 women could be eligible for the drug which will make a significant advancement in the war on breast cancer, according to the NHS.

The number of women receiving a breast cancer diagnosis in the UK has reached around 55,000 a year equating to around 150 cases a day. The number of women surviving it has improved but there are still 11,500 lives lost annually.

The off-patent drug is sold under the brand name Arimedix (among others) and is taken orally. Since it is off-patent, more than one company can make it and the drug can be made for around 4p per day per user.

Cancer Research UK who funded one of the trials​, said previously, anastrozole was only licensed by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for use as a breast cancer treatment, which meant it was difficult to get it to women who could benefit from it as a risk-reducing option. It’s the first medicine the MHRA has relicensed as part of NHS England’s Medicines Repurposing Programme​. 

Major step forward

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: “The extension of anastrozole’s license to cover it being used as a risk-reducing treatment is a major step forward that will enable more eligible women with a significant family history of breast cancer, to reduce their chance of developing the disease. 

“For the past decade, Breast Cancer Now has been tirelessly campaigning - with clinicians, researchers, and patients - for drugs that are found to be effective and safe in new uses, to reach people who could benefit, and we were thrilled when NHS England set up the Medicines Repurposing Programme in 2021. Anastrozole was the first drug to be supported by the programme and this news paves the way for improving access to risk-reducing drugs."

She said with the amount of women plus 400 men diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK, that it is vital that all avenues to reduce the risk of developing the disease are explored.

She added: "Eligible women offered risk-reducing drugs must also be given the information and support they need to make the right decision for them.  

“We now look forward to continuing our work with NHS England to further improve access to these drugs for everyone eligible.”

Cancer Research UK said patients will take a 1mg tablet of the drug once daily for a five-year duration. For the first time, the drug already being used to treat the condition is being adapted to help prevent the disease.

Possible side-effects 

It said not all patients taking Anastrozole will be able to complete the whole five-year course due to possible side effects, which could include hot flushes, joint pains, stiffness, and arthritis, as well as skin rash, nausea, headaches, brittle bones, and depression.

The number of cases Anastrozole can prevent depends on how many women decide to take it. However, even if only 25% of the 289,000 women eligible for the drug decide to take it, it would prevent 2,000 cases of women being diagnosed with breast cancer, the NHS claims. The initial step recommended by the NHS is for the women eligible to consult their general practitioner (GP), who might then refer them to a breast cancer or family history clinic.

The female hormone oestrogen can encourage breast cancer cells to grow. Drugs called aromatase inhibitors can stop the body making oestrogen, which may help to prevent breast cancer.

Anastrozole is an aromatase inhibitor that doctors can use as a treatment for breast cancer in women who have been through menopause (post-menopausal women).

Doctor Sacha Howell, Prevent Breast Cancer​ expert, said: “The drug has been used as a treatment for many years and has been approved for use in cancer prevention for the last 6 years. However, very few eligible women know about preventive anastrozole. The new license for prevention will hopefully raise awareness and remove one of the barriers for the uptake of this treatment. Anastrozole is a valuable option for women who are at high risk of developing breast cancer in whom a five-year course will cut their risk in half.” 

Stop the shattering news

He added that with breast cancer being the most common in the UK, it is vital that charities keep advocating for new preventative treatments to bring numbers down to help thousands of women every year avoid hearing 'the shattering news' they they have the disease.  

He continued: “Anastrozole helps reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer significantly whilst she is taking the drug, but it’s also been shown to keep acting for years after she stops her course of medication, making it a long-term intervention that can help prevent thousands of cases every year. 

“At just 4p per tablet, this drug is affordable, safe and effective and women at high risk of breast cancer should give serious consideration to taking it.”

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