Health and Healthcare

A new breakthrough spares certain breast cancer patients from chemotherapy

Phlebotomist Colliston Rose draws blood from cancer patient Deborah Charles during a weekly test to monitor blood counts at Georgetown University Hospital's Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington May 23, 2007. Since Charles, a journalist for Reuters, was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2006, she has had to back away from actively covering the news and has had three operations, four rounds of chemotherapy and has been visiting the hospital at least once a week for appointments and treatment. Photo taken May 23, 2007.  To match feature WITNESS-CANCER/DISCOVERY  REUTERS/Jim Bourg  (UNITED STATES)

Chemotherapy could soon out of the picture for patients who are deemed to not experience any benefits from the treatment. Image: REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Dan Robitzski
Journalist, Futurism
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Health and Healthcare?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Health and Healthcare is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Health and Healthcare

A new class of patients could soon be treated for breast cancer, no chemotherapy required. That’s because they don’t really benefit from it, according to a study published Sunday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Those patients: those diagnosed with early-stage, invasive, hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer who scored in a specific range of a genetic test. They benefit just as much from chemotherapy, which many don’t tolerate well and can have long-term consequences, as they do from hormone treatments, which have many fewer side effects.

But before this study came out, many people in this group were prescribed chemotherapy because doctors had, based on the best information available, assumed it would help them. For those people, the side effects of chemotherapy could have been avoided, without making the treatment any less effective.

The confusion comes from a genetic test called Oncotype DX that rates the likelihood of breast cancer recurrence on a 100-point scale. The test looks at 21 different genes known to play a role in the development of breast cancer. But until this new research, patients and doctors didn’t have all of the information they needed to recommend treatment based on a patient’s particular results.

Past experiments revealed that one group of people particular results of the genetic test would benefit from a combination of endocrine therapy and chemotherapy. Those in another group benefited solely from endocrine therapy, which blocks estrogen from reaching the tumors that would use it to grow. But there was a big group of patients in between for whom it wasn’t clear which treatment would work best.

In past studies. doctors looked back at the data for patients in this third group and determined that they would benefit from chemotherapy. But the researchers who conducted this new controlled experiment found that chemotherapy provided no additional benefit over hormone treatments alone.

Have you read?

While the new study fills in a crucial gap of medical knowledge, what remains confusing is what took so long to get the point where we can measure twice and cut once, so to speak. According to NPR, 65,000 breast cancer patients every year fall into that middle ground group. And even though Oncotype DX came out in 2004, the experiments that showed chemotherapy helping people with some results of the tests weren’t published until 2015.

One more thing the new findings show? That doctors and researchers need to constantly re-evaluate the assumptions on which medical decisions are based, especially for something as important and time-sensitive as cancer treatments. And while this finding certainly doesn’t eliminate chemotherapy as a viable tool, it very likely means that a huge number of patients will have the opportunity to receive more personally-tailored treatments in the future.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Scientists have invented a method to break down 'forever chemicals' in our drinking water. Here’s how

Johnny Wood

April 17, 2024


About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum