One of Breast Cancer Action’s first campaigns was an effort to persuade Genentech to allow compassionate use of a drug (Her2/neu or Trastuzumab, brand name, Herceptin) that showed promise for those with late-stage breast cancer. This article, by Mary Ann Swissier, was published in The Independent, in 1994 (exact date unknown). 

A joint action between local breast cancer treatment advocates and ACT UP/Golden Gate last December will start to bear fruit next month, when an experimental drug, Her2/neu, will be made available on a compassionate use basis.

Breast cancer patients and their supporters beat a noisy path to the research labs of Genentech Pharmaceuticals on December 6, 1994, looking and sounding like an ACT UP AIDS demo, to demand the release of a new drug that had shown great promise to late-stage breast cancer patients. The drug, Her2/neu, was favored by metastatic breast cancer patients like Gracia Buffleben, who occupied the Genentech campus, because it showed promise in patients who were not affected by standard chemotherapy.

Buffleben’s work in Breast Cancer Action was joined by her fellow activists in Project Inform and The Breast Cancer Committee of ACT UP/Golden Gate.

Nine months after the action, on August 9, Genentech okayed the compassionate access use of the drug, which is already being used by patients in the Her2/neu clinical trial protocols.

Nancy Evans of Breast Cancer Action told the Bay Area Reporter that final FDA approval is still needed, and is expected in January to coincide with the beginning of the program. Now the goal is to expand the program, according to Marilyn McGregor of ACT UP. “We want them to get the glitches out and basically up the numbers,” McGregor said.

Evans told the B.A.R., “Young women especially need to know about this drug since they are most likely to have the kind of tumor [that can be treated with this drug].” Her2/neu is a non-toxic biological therapy directed against receptors on tumor cells. “These women have a poorer prognosis, more aggressive disease, and are highly unlikely to respond to standard chemotherapy,” said Evans.

Genentech only began negotiating with breast cancer patients in a meaningful way after last December’s protest, she added, “It was not the demonstration that got us here, but that did get their attention. After that we were then able to meet with Genentech and work out an agreement.”

McGregor stressed, “It will always be an uneasy relationship between drug companies and activists. Although Genentech is now cooperating with activist groups, it still does not have a compassionate drug access policy for other drugs being developed for life-threatening illnesses.”