New immunotherapy treatment for lung cancer dramatically improves survival, researchers report

Treatment cut in half the risk of dying or having the cancer worsen, compared to chemo alone, after nearly one year
April 25, 2018

(credit: Merck)

An immunotherapy treatment — one that boosts the immune system — has improved survival in people newly diagnosed with the most common form of lung cancer (advanced non–small-cell lung cancer), according to an open-access study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study results were presented last Monday, April 16, at the annual American Association for Cancer Research conference in Chicago.

Cutting the risk of dying in half. The new study, led by thoracic medical oncologist Leena Gandhi, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and director of the thoracic medical oncology program at NYU’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, shows that treating lung cancer by a combination of immunotherapy with Merck’s Keytruda (aka pembrolizumab) and chemotherapy is more effective than chemotherapy alone, according to a statement by NYU Langone Health.

The combination cut in half the risk of dying or having the cancer worsen, compared to chemo alone, after nearly one year, the Associated Press reported in The New York Times. “The results are expected to quickly set a new standard of care for about 70,000 patients each year in the United States whose lung cancer has already spread by the time it’s found,” the AP stated.

“Another study found that an immunotherapy combo — the Bristol-Myers Squibb drugs Opdivo and Yervoy — worked better than chemo for delaying the time until cancer worsened in advanced lung cancer patients whose tumors have many gene flaws, as nearly half do. But the benefit lasted less than two months on average and it’s too soon to know if the combo improves overall survival, as Keytruda did.”

Micrograph of a squamous carcinoma, a type of non-small-cell lung cancer (credit: Wikipedia)

Removing a cloak. All three of these “checkpoint inhibitor” treatments remove a “cloak” that some cancer cells have that hides the cancer cells from the immune system.

These immune-therapy treatments — which are administered through IVs and cost about $12,500 a month — worked for only about half of patients. But that’s far better than chemo alone has done in the past, notes the AP.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2018, there will be about 234,030 new cases of lung cancer in the U.S and about 154,050 deaths from lung cancer.