CLEVELAND — Immunotherapy has been a game-changer for treating cancers such as melanoma, lung cancer and bladder cancer.

Now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first-ever combination of an immunotherapy drug (atezolizumab), plus chemotherapy (nabpaclitaxel) for treating breast cancer.

Jame Abraham, M.D., an oncologist at Cleveland Clinic, said this new treatment is an option for some women who have been diagnosed with metastatic ‘triple-negative’ breast cancer.

“This is not for all patients; it’s for patients with metastatic breast cancer – meaning the cancer has already left the breast and spread to another part of the body – and even within metastatic breast cancer, it’s specifically for triple-negative breast cancer,” he said. 

About 15 percent of breast cancers are diagnosed as triple negative – an aggressive form of the disease that does not respond well to traditional treatments.

The FDA approval comes after recent research showed this specific combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy can be effective in reducing the spread of stage four triple negative breast cancer – helping women live longer without cancer.

Immunotherapy works by activating the body’s immune cells to attack the cancer cells.

Triple-negative breast cancer is more likely to be diagnosed in women younger than 50 and especially in African-American women.

Dr. Abraham said advancements in immunotherapy will hopefully lead to more treatment options for other types of breast cancer in the future.

“While this is a small step forward for this group of patients, we are really hopeful and optimistic that, potentially, immunotherapy can be a treatment option for a wider group of patients in the future.” 

Dr. Abraham points out that important research – which can lead to more treatment options – would not be possible without people who are willing to participate in clinical trials.

“I really admire the patients who enroll in clinical trials,” he said. “Somewhere, someone said ‘yes’ to a clinical trial – and that’s the only reason that we are able to have these advancements. So, we need to continue to ask these questions and we need to continue to do clinical trials and have active engagement and participation from patients on clinical trials.”

Women interested in learning more about immunotherapy for breast cancer clinical trials can visit clinicaltrials.gov.