Terminally ill cancer patients have been given new hope as clinical trials reveal broad success for a revolutionary treatment. Patients with advanced bladder, head and neck cancer, and classical Hodgkin lymphoma were among those whose lives were extended by immunotherapy, the recent American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual meeting in Chicago revealed. Unlike surgery, radio or chemo, immunotherapy doesn’t directly target cancer cells.
Immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors block that signal and free immune cells for the cancer-fighting cause. While immunotherapy was shown last year to improve survival for patients with melanoma and lung cancer, success has now been revealed for other types, including hard-to-treat cancers.
In two trials of previously treated metastatic bladder cancer patients, the immunotherapy drugs atezolizumab, which was FDA approved last month, and nivolumab, shrunk tumors by 30% in at least a fifth of patients. On nivolumab, 45.6% of bladder cancer patients survived for at least a year, a follow-up study showed – “Better than anything we’ve seen in the past”, according to oncologist Padmanee Sharma, who was involved in the trial.
Another checkpoint inhibitor called pembrolizumab was tested on heavily pre-treated patients with reoccurring or metastatic head and neck cancer, an “Extremely difficult disease to treat”, according to Ranee Mehra, head and neck oncology at Philadelphia’s Fox Chase Cancer Center.
Merck has applied for Keytruda approval for metastatic head and neck cancer, which will be reviewed under the FDA’s Accelerated Approval program. Other cancer types reported to respond to immunotherapy included metastatic anal cancer and advanced kidney cancer.
Success was also reported for classical Hodgkin lymphoma – a trial showed 66% of 80 patients responded to nivolumab with partial or full remissions after their cancer had progressed following stem cell transplants and chemotherapy. A problem remains that only around a fifth of cancer patients respond to immunotherapy.
Two-year survival rates for metastatic melanoma patients between 2004 and 2009 have been reported to range between 9% and 40%. “There are multiple things happening in the tumor micro-environment and in the cancer itself, so we need to come in with a multi-pronged attack,” Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, CEO of the non-profit Cancer Research Institute in New York, told Forbes. The drug also doubled the number of patients that showed no sign of any remaining cancer from 9% to 19%. “Overall the future for all of these immunotherapy approaches is bright,” said O’Donnell-Tormey.
“We’re continuing to see immunotherapies