This article reports on recent advances on metastatic breast cancer. Detection, prognostic factors, predictors of response to therapy and therapy, with particular regard to targeted therapies, were examined.
Detection: Unlike current guidelines that yet do not routinely recommend intensive clinical-instrumental post-operative follow-up of breast cancer patients, relatively large data collected in the last decades have shown that an intensive post-operative follow-up with 'dynamic evaluation' of a suitable tumour marker panel precedes a few months as average the clinical and/or instrumental sign of a pending relapse in most relapsed patients and largely limits the use of the common instrumental examinations.
Prognosis and therapy predictors: Disease-free interval (DFI)<or=24 months, adjuvant chemotherapy, liver and distant soft tissue involvement or DFI>24 months and disease confined to bony skeleton are prognostic factors more often correlated with relatively poor or prolonged survival, respectively. Estrogen receptor (ER) expression in primary tumour and at the relapse correlates strongly with response to salvage hormone therapy and data from large trials showed that 38-59% of ER and/or PR+ post-menopausal patients had clinical benefit from first line tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors. An inverse correlation of ER with epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) has been found. The co-expression of HER-2/neu and/or elevated serum HER-2/neu protein level were associated with a low rate and shorter duration of response of ER+ patients to first line hormone therapy. Accordingly, ER-EGFR- compared with ER-EGFR+ tumours are usually more responsive to endocrine therapy. High class III beta-tubulin expression or fall in insulin-like growth factor binding protein-3 (IGFBP-3) from baseline levels have been found to significantly predict resistance to chemotherapeutic agents.
Therapy: Liposomes as carrier of doxorubicin (Caelix, Evacet, Myocet) is one approach to decrease the anthracycline-related cardiac toxicity. Weekly paclitaxel or docetaxel and oral formulation of vinorelbine and 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) (capecitabine) provide new effective and well tolerated options that reach greater dose intensity and cumulative dose than with the conventional schedules. As to the so called 'tailored' or targeted therapies, the more potent and highly selective third generation of aromatase inhibitors (letrozole, anastrozole, exemestane) targeting ER+ tumours by estrogen deprivation, challenge tamoxifen as current standard first line therapy in postmenopausals. One pilot study showed that stimulation of cellular immunity by the addition of beta-interferon-interleukin-2 sequence in patients on clinical benefit on first line tamoxifen significantly prolonged median overall survival (OS) and duration of response compared to that observed in similar patients only treated with tamoxifen. Trastuzumab, a humanised monoclonal antibody to extracellular domain of HER-2, plus conventional chemotherapy has become a standard of care for women with overexpressing HER-2 tumours. Bevacizumab is a recombinant humanised monoclonal antibody to vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) that in refractory metastatic breast cancer doubled the response rate of capecitabine although it did not affect survival. Finally, the so called 'oligometastatic' and a few stage IV diseases are conditions amenable to be rendered with no evidence of disease (NED) after local surgery and/or radiation. In both, as well as in complete responders to chemotherapy, minimal residual disease (m.r.d.) likely continues to be present. Recent data suggest that 'biological' therapy (immunomodulators and/or retinoids with or without hormone therapy), might be suitable to be successfully tested in these patients as maintenance treatment given soon after local intervention or chemotherapy.