Comprehensive programme improves accuracy and reliability of HER2 testing

Breast and gastric cancer are among the most common cancers in Asia. The incidence rates remain low, although they are increasing faster than in Western countries due to changes in lifestyle and diet. HER2-positive cancer, a particularly aggressive form that affects about one-in-five people with breast or gastric cancer, can be treated with Herceptin (trastuzumab).

Herceptin is a targeted treatment that only works in people with HER2-positive cancer. So, samples of a patient’s tumour must be tested for HER2 before treatment starts. The accuracy of the test is critical, requiring proficiency in tissue collection and processing, as well as laboratory procedures. Without reliable diagnostic testing, clinicians are unable to effectively screen for cancer, diagnose disease and develop care plans.

In Asia there is a critical shortage of reliable laboratories providing quality testing results, along with qualified pathologists and technical personal (histo-technologists). This is compounded by the limited opportunities for professional education and training, contributes to the majority of cancers not being diagnosed until they reach an advanced stage of disease when it is often too late for a cure.

This highlights the need for educational programmes to increase the number of pathologists and histo-technicians in the region, combined with programs to strengthen the skills of the current workforce.  

In 2010 Roche launched the SPHERE programme (Scientific Partnership for HER2 Testing Excellence) in Asia-Pacific. The aim is to help integrate HER2 testing of breast and gastric cancer patients at the point of disease diagnosis.

Developed with experts, SPHERE is designed to improve pathologists and histo-technicians skills around all aspects of tissue testing processes, starting with HER2 driven disease. The training includes plenary presentations and workshops, with hands-on laboratory experience and interactive microscope sessions. The aim is to increase the reliability and reproducibility of HER2 testing by: We are also seeking to increase the reliability and reproducibility of HER2 testing by:

  • training surgeons on taking and handling tissue biopsies

  • establishing training and quality control procedures for lab technicians

  • assisting pathologists in scoring and interpreting results

  • educating oncologists on the need for reliable HER2 testing and the link to treatment decisions

In addition, the programme aims to educate, share best practice and facilitate communication on HER2 testing between pathologists and technicians across Asia-Pacific.  Collaboration between all health workers in the management of cancer care - surgeons, technicians, pathologists, radiologists and oncologists - through the creation of multidisciplinary teams. The ultimate goal is for people to receive accurate, timely diagnosis of the disease and appropriate selection for treatment.

SPHERE now operates in 13 countries in Asia-Pacific: Bangladesh, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

In 2016, close to 6,000 pathologists, surgeons and technicians participated in more than 125 training programmes across the countries. Over 160,000 women with breast cancer have been tested in the SPHERE programme and the programme continues to expand.

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