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Study Finds Vitamin A-Like Drug Beneficial For Young Women at High Risk of Breast Cancer Recurrence (dateline October 9, 2000)

According to a new study, young women with breast cancer may reduce their chances of developing the disease again with a drug based on a derivative of vitamin A. In the study, pre-menopausal women who took the drug fenretinide were less likely to develop breast cancer again in either breast. While fenretinide may be beneficial to young women, the researchers say that the drug does not appear to be effective in post-menopausal women.

In the study, which was presented at the Second European Breast Cancer Conference in Brussels, Belgium in September 2000, researchers studied nearly 3,000 pre-menopausal women with early-stage breast cancer. Half of the women in the study were given fenretinide for five years after breast cancer surgery while the other half received no additional treatment.

After seven years, the researchers found that only 85 of the women who received fenretinide developed breast cancer again (27 developed breast cancer in the healthy breast; 58 developed breast cancer in the same breast). By contrast, 129 women who did not receive fenretinide developed breast cancer again (42 in the healthy breast; 87 in the same breast).

According to Dr. Alberto Costa of the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, fenretinide could be very beneficial as both a treatment option and as a preventive measure in young women at high risk of breast cancer. Because fenretinide is a non-toxic derivative of vitamin A, many women can tolerate fenretinide more easily than other drugs used to treat breast cancer (such as tamoxifen).

According to the researchers, fenretinide works in pre-menopausal women by targeting those breast cells that are growing more disorganized and beginning to multiplying out of control. While Dr. Costa and his colleagues are not certain why fenretinide worked well in younger women, they believe the effect may be related to the interaction of fenretinide and the female hormone estrogen (which exists at higher levels in pre-menopausal women).

Though the results of the study need to be confirmed in larger studies, the researchers believe the preliminary results are promising. According to Dr. Costa, two additional studies on fenretinide have already begun. One study will test fenretinide combined with a low-dose of tamoxifen while the other will focus on using fenretinide in conjunction with hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in older women.

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