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Targeted Therapy for Breast Cancer

Breast cancer develops differently in everyone. Understanding the characteristics of breast cancer helps us treat it more effectively. At the Abramson Cancer Center, our specialized breast cancer team knows how to personalize treatment to target each unique cancer.

What Is Targeted Cancer Therapy?

Cancer cells contain mutated (changed) genes and proteins that make cells divide and multiply quickly. Targeted therapy blocks the growth of cancer cells by focusing on those genes and proteins. Unlike chemotherapy, targeted drugs only pinpoint cancer cells and do not harm normal cells.

For targeted drugs to work effectively, we need to understand what fuels cancer cells’ growth. Researchers have found a number of different "targets" (genes, proteins and other characteristics) that help breast cancer cells grow and spread. To see which targets a breast cancer has, we study a tissue sample. These tests are completed as part of a breast cancer diagnosis.

Targeted Therapy for Breast Cancer: Why Choose the Abramson Cancer Center

Our multidisciplinary breast cancer team closely collaborates to provide treatment that’s appropriate for you. At the Abramson Cancer Center, you can expect:

  • Breast cancer expertise: Our medical oncologists work exclusively with breast cancer patients. We know exactly when and how to use targeted drugs to offer the newest therapies as standard treatment whenever possible.
  • Precise diagnosis: A specialized breast cancer pathologist identifies the characteristics of every breast cancer. A quick and expert diagnosis means you’ll get personalized breast cancer treatment as soon as possible.
  • Innovative treatment: Clinical research continues to investigate new targeted therapies for breast cancer treatment. You have access to novel therapies through our clinical trials.
  • Supportive care: We offer support services to help alleviate any discomfort or side effects associated with targeted therapy. Our social workers provide resources and support for non-medical issues.
  • Treatment close to home: You’ll find personalized breast cancer care at all Penn Medicine locations. Our breast cancer specialists and providers collaborate across the network to provide targeted treatment in a convenient location.

How We Treat Breast Cancer With Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy allows us to personalize treatment for certain types and stages of breast cancer. It may be given on its own or in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy and hormone therapy. For some types of breast cancer, targeted therapy is only recommended after chemotherapy has not been effective.

Targeted drugs are delivered through a vein or in pill form. Depending on how targeted therapy is given, the drugs can be taken at home or administered on an outpatient basis.

We use targeted therapy to treat many types of breast cancer, including:

HER2-Positive Breast Cancer

Penn oncologists routinely treat HER2 (human epidermal growth factor 2)-positive breast cancer with targeted therapy. These targeted drugs help in two ways: They either stop cancer cells from growing or help direct chemotherapy to those cells.

The type of targeted therapies used for breast cancer include:

  • Monoclonal antibodies, which attach to the HER2 protein on cancer cells to stop cell growth
  • Antibody-drug conjugates (ADC), a type of monoclonal antibody that attracts toxic substances, such as chemotherapy, to cancer cells.
  • Kinase inhibitors, which block kinase proteins such as HER2 that normally signal cancer cells to grow.

Hormone-Positive Breast Cancer

We treat hormone-positive breast cancer (also called hormone receptor-positive breast cancer) with hormone therapy. We may add targeted therapy to make that treatment more effective. The types of targeted drugs we use include:

  • CDK4/6 inhibitors, to halt proteins called cyclin-dependent kinases (CDK) in hormone receptor-positive cancer cells to stop the cells from dividing
  • mTOR inhibitors, which block the mTOR protein in cells to keep them from growing and dividing
  • PI3K inhibitors, which stop cells from growing by obstructing the PI3K protein found in some cancer cells

Breast Cancer With BRCA Gene Mutations

Some cancers with BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations can be treated with targeted therapies called PARP inhibitors. PARP inhibitors intercept PARP proteins, whose job is to repair damaged DNA in cells. Cancer cells are destroyed when they are not repaired.

Triple Negative Breast Cancer

For some people, chemotherapy alone may be ineffective against triple negative breast cancer. When that happens, we may recommend targeted therapy used in combination with chemotherapy. Antibody-drug conjugate is a drug that binds to a specific protein on the cancer cells and then guides chemotherapy directly to those cells.