New studies show hope for turning immune system against lung cancer

Treatment combo improves lung cancer survival times study finds

Treatment combo improves lung cancer survival times study finds

It's the principal form of lung cancer and found most commonly in people who have smoked.

The study estimates that one year after treatment, 69 percent of patients who received the immunotherapy drug in addition to chemotherapy would still be alive, compared with 49 percent of people who received chemotherapy alone.

Experts said it was especially significant that the study showed that patients benefited from the Keytruda-chemo combination regardless of the levels of a protein, called PD-L1, found on their cancer cells.

Roy Herbst, an oncologist at Yale Cancer Center said that most lung cancer patients now will be offered immunotherapy in some form much earlier than before.

The report was one of several highly anticipated studies on immunotherapy and lung cancer presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Chicago.

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

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Gandhi said chemotherapy alone had only a "modest benefit", and could add only a few months of life, with most patients surviving about a year or less.

There's encouraging news for cancer treatments that stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells. The drugs are given through IVs and cost about $12,500 a month.

Patients in the study had advanced non-small cell lung cancer, the most common type.

"Non-small cell lung cancer is actually the leading cause of cancer death in the world even though it's not the most common cancer", said Dr. Leena Gandhi, lead investigator of the study and director of the thoracic medical oncology program at Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Health.

Doctors already prescribe Keytruda to patients if a blood test shows that they are likely to respond to this drug. Those not given Keytruda were allowed to switch to it if their cancer worsened. More research is needed to know if the combo improves overall survival, as Keytruda did.

Gandhis study included 616 patients with advanced lung cancer, from medical centers in 16 countries. And he said the trial showed that “tumor mutational burden” is a reliable way to predict who will benefit from the medications.

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Gandhi wondered, Would using immunotherapy earlier in treatment, alongside chemotherapy, do more for patients? More than 4 percent of that group developed lung inflammation and three patients died of it.

Some patients with non-small cell lung cancer respond to drugs that target specific mutations.

The study design was changed after it was underway to look at results according to patients' tumor mutation burden - a measure of how flawed their cancer genes are, according to a profiling test by Foundation Medicine.

Immune-boosting drugs given in conjunction with chemotherapy significantly extended life for people with the most common type of lung cancer, according to clinical trials. By killing some tumor cells, chemotherapy could pop open the bags, release the contents and help immune cells — unleashed by the checkpoint drugs — to identify their prey.

Non-squamous lung cancer patients make up about 80% of all the non-small cell lung cancers, so that amounts to over 150,000 patients in the United States each year, said Gomez, who was not involved in the new study.

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