A new cancer treatment can help some lung cancer tumors “[melt] away,” seriously prolonging patients’ lives, according to a series of breakthrough studies revealed this week.
The findings, presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Chicago, are some of the biggest victories yet for immunotherapy, which has been used to treat less common cancers with growing success.
The treatment works by boosting the immune system so that it can better attack cancer cells.
When the immunotherapy treatments was given to lung cancer patients, they tended to live much longer, according to one of the studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The 600-patient trial gave participants a combination of chemotherapy and an immunotherapy drug called Keytruda. (The drug is made by Merck pharmaceutical company, which supported the study.) Patients were 51 percent less likely to die when they got immunotherapy plus chemo, compared to those who just got the chemo.
In another study also published in NEJM, only 1 out of 20 patients who received the immunotherapy drug Opdivo before surgery died of the cancer. Two others required further treatment, but their cancer hasn’t returned. (The drug is made by Bristol-Myers Squibb, which also provided some funding for the study.)
“When the surgeons open the patients, they see the tumor almost melting away. That is extraordinary,” Dr. Roy Herbst, a lung cancer specialist at Yale Cancer Center, told NBC. “It eats it away like a Pac-man. It probably creates a roller coaster of immune response.”
The researchers were careful not to call the breakthroughs a “cure,” though. More long-term studies are needed to prove that the cancer doesn’t come back. And the drugs are expensive: Treatment costs about $100,000 a year. But the findings are especially promising news in the fight against lung cancer — the world’s deadliest type of cancer.