Study offers Nigerian women with HER2-positive breast cancer free drugs

Nigerian women who are newly diagnosed with HER-2 positive type of breast cancer will soon receive free Herceptin SC cancer drugs through the ARETTA study.

ARETTA means Assessing Response to neoadjuvant Taxotere and TrAstuzumab in Nigeria women with HER2-positive breast cancer,  and is led by Professor Olufunmilayo I. Olopade, a famous Nigerian oncologist, and a 2005 MacArthur Fellow.

It is done with support from Roche Pharmaceuticals, University of Chicago and other partners.

“We are doing the study because we want to be in solidarity with women in Nigeria.  There is  need to build the capacity of  cancer specialists to treat cancer in Nigeria, not in India or any country.  Our government must act in the interest of Nigerians to reduce costs and provide affordable quality care to cancer patients.

“Without universal health insurance and coverage for catastrophic illness that is treatable and preventable like cancer, the average Nigerian cannot afford health care.  Nigerian doctors can save more lives but the government needs to develop a health system that works for  all Nigerians not only the rich who can leave the country to get care,” said Olopade,  who is also a professor at the University of Chicago.

She said: “The study is open only to women who have newly diagnosed breast cancer that has not spread beyond the breast. It is very important that women do not delay getting diagnosed and treated.

“This is the first time a study like this is happening in Nigeria, and we are delighted to provide this relatively expensive drug – Herceptin SC – free of charge to eligible Nigerian women.”

According to the World Health Organization’s  International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women and the leading cause of cancer deaths in Nigeria, with an estimated 26,310 new cases and 11,564 deaths in 2018.

A statement from Project Pink Blue said breast cancer incidence has been historically low in Nigeria, but that it is increasing now.

“In comparison to some western countries, more people are diagnosed of breast cancer in Europe and America, however, breast cancer deaths in those countries are lower when compared with Nigeria and in sub-Saharan Africa. This is attributed to absence of organized screenings, poverty, poor treatment and access to cancer medicine. There is a need for intentional action to increase better cancer treatment in Nigeria and African countries.”

Medical experts said there are many subtypes of breast cancer, such as hormone receptor positive, HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) positive, and triple-negative breast cancer.

“In Nigeria, many women are diagnosed with these sub-types of breast cancer. Out of the three sub-types, HER 2 positive is the most expensive to treat but ironically it’s outcome is always good if the right drugs are used. To treat HER2 positive breast cancer, oncologists (that is, cancer doctors) usually recommend that patients with such cancer are treated with modern targeted therapy known as Herceptin. One course of Herceptin costs about N309,000 and in most cases a woman is expected to take 18 courses. In total, it could cost over N5,562,000 for a woman to get treated from HER2 positive breast cancer,” the statement said.

“In 2015, it took us over one year to raise N9 million needed to purchase Herceptin for one 35-year-old indigent breast cancer patient who approached us for funding for her treatment,” said  Runcie C.W. Chidebe, Executive Director, Project Pink Blue.

“Today, through Prof. Olopade’s efforts, Nigerian women will get this same cancer medicine free. This is commendable. I encourage women across the country to key-in and benefit from this.”

Dr. Atara Ntekim, National Principal Investigator for ARETTA, and  an oncologist at the Department of Radiation Oncology, University College Hospital  (UCH) Ibadan, said the study would be conducted at UCH Ibadan, Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) and  Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital (OAUTHC) Ile Ife.

Khadijat Banwo-Fatai, a 10-year breast cancer survivor,  board member, Project Pink Blue  and founding member, Abuja Breast Cancer Support Group (ABC-SG) said:  “We will be willing to extend this study to other facilities across Nigeria for the benefit of Nigerian women.

“When I was diagnosed of breast cancer in 2009, I had suffered greatly to get funding for my treatment. This is a welcome development and I want to thank Professor Olopade, Roche and University of Chicago for adding Nigeria in this project.”

ARETTA study was launched on July 29, 2019 at the University College Hospital (UCH) of University of Ibadan. The launch was attended by Prof. J. A. Otegbayo, Chief Medical Director of UCH, other stakeholders and many breast cancer patients.


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