It’s hard to have a conversation about the latest in cancer research these days without talking about cancer immunotherapy and true to form, that subject dominated the discussion at the recently held annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, or ASCO.
Cancer treatment has traditionally consisted of chemotherapy and radiation, treatments that bring side effects such as a weakened immune system or damaged to healthy tissue. Immunotherapy avoids these problems. These treatments are based on the idea that the best treatment for cancer is already inside the patient’s body. Immunotherapy is a way of prompting the body’s own immune system to fight disease, either by stimulating an immune response or by blocking the proteins that would impede the immune system from recognizing and fighting the cancer cells. Because the cancer fighting agent is the patient’s own immune system, the side effect profile is reduced. Furthermore, such treatments could be expanded to fight a wider range of cancers. The expanded indications could come from existing immunotherapies.
Merck’s drug Keytruda, and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Obdivo and Yervoy are all currently available FDA-approved treatments for melanoma. The drugs are so-called checkpoint inhibitors, that is, they work by blocking the molecular brakes, or checkpoints, that stop the body’s immune system from recognizing and fighting the cancer. Obdivo is the first such drug to find a wider application, receiving an additional FDA approval in March as a lung cancer treatment. What’s particularly promising with Obdivo, notes The New York Times, is the report of clinical trial results showing that lung cancer patients receiving the drug lived a median 12.2 months longer than those treated with chemotherapy, and with fewer side effects. Bristol-Myers also presented data showing Obdivo’s efficacy in liver cancer, and head and neck cancer.
Not to be outdone, Merck reported data showing that its drug, Keytruda, demonstrated activity in 13 different tumor types. Among the areas that the company reported early stage data were small cell lung cancer, esophageal cancer, and advanced ovarian cancer.
Meanwhile, Celldex Therapeutics updated findings for clinical studies of its experimental immunotherapy targeting a type of recurrent brain tumor. The Celldex drug, Rintega, was studied in combination with the Roche cancer drug Avastin. That combination extended patient survival by 43 percent compared against Avastin and a control, The Street.com reported. With those results in hand, Celldex is preparing to meet with the FDA to discuss accelerated approval of the drug.
It’s not certain that all of these drugs will reach the market in all of the indications studied. As clinical trials continue, the efficacy results seen in earlier studies with small groups of patients might not hold up in a larger study group. Others might not prove to be any better than existing treatments. And Leonard Saltz, chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, lamented that the rising price of cancer drugs is unsustainable. Despite these challenges, the treatment potential these drugs have shown so far is leaving many people more optimistic than they have been in years about the future of cancer treatment.
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