Health Care

Immunotherapy shows promise for lung cancer

Immunotherapies impress in key lung cancer trials

BMS shares dropped almost 10% Monday despite another study showing that Opdivo, combined with another Bristol-Myers immunotherapy called Yervoy, slowed lung cancer's progression in patients.

Gandhi explained that the reason non-small cell lung cancer is so deadly is the existing chemotherapy drugs provide only limited survival benefits for patients. It seems that the only condition for this therapy to work is to treat cancer patients before they have surgery.

"What it suggests is that chemotherapy alone is no longer a standard of care", said Dr. Leena Gandhi, who led the study. The findings of the study revealed that when Keytruda was administered alongside standard chemotherapy, the risk of death or having the cancer become worse was cut in half compared to chemotherapy alone after nearly a year. It can be given for up to 24 months for those without disease progression, Merck said. This is a huge progress that will certainly help lung cancer patients a lot more.

Immunotherapy, which harnesses the body's immune system to attack tumors, is known to improve survival in patients who have already been treated with chemo.

Pembrolizumab, sold under the brand name Keytruda, is an FDA-approved drug sold by a subsidiary of Merck & Company, Inc. that sponsored this study.

One group of 400 patients received standard chemotherapy and the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab, while a smaller group of patients received chemotherapy.

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According to the study, Merck's immunotherapy drug fared very well in a lung cancer trial for people with advanced non-squamous NSCLC, increasing survival rates to 69.2 percent when coupled with chemotherapy.

The study, which tested treatment effectiveness and side effects, included 616 patients at 118 medical facilities across the world.

"The differences were not small", says Gandhi.

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

The study participants were divided into two groups: one group received only the chemotherapy drug, while the other was administered an additional 200 mg of pembrolizumab every three weeks, for the duration of four treatment cycles. "But it works. It's wonderful that we're going to be bringing these drugs to the majority of patients with lung cancer in the first-line setting", Herbst added.

"The addition of pembrolizumab to chemotherapy resulted in significantly higher rates of response and longer progression-free survival than chemotherapy alone", her team writes in their paper. Then, they underwent the surgery they needed for their type of the disease, lung cancer. "We do need to focus more on how to differentiate the patients who will get the most benefit".