A new drug that stimulates the power of immune system to fight off cancer cells and destroy tumors is being called the biggest medical breakthrough in medical history since chemotherapy. In fact, the new treatment, known as immunotherapy, is more potent in fighting advanced form of skin and lung cancer than the conventional chemotherapy agent, according to the researchers.
In addition to being much more effective, the new treatment that tricks body’s own defense mechanism to ward off the deadly cells is also less toxic to patients.
In two separate clinical trials on two different types of advanced cancers, the drug removed the tumors in patients who were expected to survive for only a few months. Fortunately, these patients are now leading normal lives.
The trials involved 260 lung cancer patients and 945 patients battling melanoma – an aggressive form of skin cancer.
During the trials, the doctors discovered that the lung-cancer patients given the immune checkpoint inhibitor nivolumab lived on average 3.2 months longer than the patients who received chemotherapy. As for the patients with advanced melanoma skin cancer, combining nivolumab with another checkpoint inhibitor ipilimumab showed a significant extension in progression-free survival.
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The treatment has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for patients whose melanoma cannot be removed by surgery or has spread to other organs and no longer responds to other drugs.
“All the early preclinical and clinical work supported the idea that combining these two immunotherapy drugs could result in better outcomes for patients,” said Dr. Jedd Wolchok of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Chicago who led the melanoma trial. “We’re encouraged by the progression-free survival data we’re currently reporting. It is a testament to how drastically immunotherapy has altered the prognostic landscape for advanced melanoma patients.”
Along with proving efficient against lung and skin cancer, immunotherapy has also been helpful in fighting kidney, bladder, and head and neck cancers.
So far, the new immunotherapy drugs have shown great promise, becoming a big new ray of hope for cancer patients.
Although the extension in survival is still rather small – from few weeks to a few months – it may actually mask much better, long-term outcomes, as patients who respond to immunotherapy tend to continue with a response, according to Julie Brahmer, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.