Studies find new ways to use immune-boosting lung cancer drugs

Micrographs of squamous carcinomaNEPHRON WIKIMEDIA

In his own research, Hellmann said, his team finessed the dosing of the two drugs to minimize side effects, and found that the combination therapy was significantly better than chemotherapy alone against tumors with a lot of mutations.

One study, conducted by scientists at New York University, involved more than 600 patients with advanced lung cancer. It's the biggest win so far for immunotherapy, which has had much of its success until now in less common cancers.

Other studies presented at the meeting also highlighted advances in immunotherapy against lung cancer, but were at earlier points in the research and less likely to bring about immediate changes in medical practice.

Combining an immunotherapy drug with chemotherapy almost doubled the survival time of some lung cancer patients compared to patients treated with chemotherapy alone, new research published Monday in the New England Journal of Medicine showed.

"We're not almost where we need to be yet", said Dr. Roy Herbst, a Yale Cancer Center lung expert who had no role in the studies.

Chemotherapy may no longer be the standard cancer treatment after the publication of a series of studies by the American Association for Cancer Research in Chicago. The studies were sponsored by the drugmakers, and many study leaders and Herbst consult for the companies. The immune-activating drug was a checkpoint inhibitor called pembrolizumab, or Keytruda, made by Merck, which paid for the study.

Immunotherapy works by harnessing the body's immune system to attack tumors.

For non-squamous non-small cell lung cancer patients, median survival with chemotherapy alone is somewhere around 11 or 12 months, he said.

Cancer patients should be given immunotherapy as the first line of treatment following the results of "game-changing" trials, charities say. Roughly 20% of patients see their tumors respond when they get chemotherapy before surgery; in this study, among patients who received Opdivo instead, 45% of tumors had regressed and in three patients there was no remaining tumor at all, Forde said.

After one year, 69 percent of people originally assigned to Keytruda were alive versus 49 percent of the others - a result that experts called remarkable considering that the second group's survival was improved because half of them wound up switching.

The Keytruda combo also delayed the time until cancer worsened - an average of nine months versus five months for the chemo-only group.

The findings represent another step forward for immunotherapy, which has been making steady gains against a number of different cancers.

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