Thanks to anti-smoking campaigns and plummeting smoking rates over the past 20 years, the number of people diagnosed with lung cancer has declined significantly in that same time period. Even so, lung cancer stubbornly remains the second most common cancer in both men and women and accounts for nearly one in every eight new cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.
Improvements in treatments have made lung cancer more survivable than in years past. In fact, a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine just shared trial results for patients with squamous-non-small cell lung cancer in which an immunotherapy medication extended survival by more than 3 months compared to standard chemotherapy. The future of immunotherapy means harnessing the power of the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.
This study indicates the viability of immunotherapy as a treatment option in lung cancer. Specifically, the medication nivolumab was provided to 135 patients while another 137 patient took the chemotherapy medication docetaxel. Nivolumab is in a class of medications referred to as “checkpoint inhibitors” because they interfere with the cancer cell’s signal that would otherwise allow the cancer to hide from the immune system.
Survival in the nivolumab group averaged 3.2 months longer. Looking at the statistics in another way, the nivolumab group’s survival rate was 42% compared to the chemotherapy group’s 24%. Fewer side effects were noted in the immunotherapy group.
There were more patients who responded to the immunotherapy than the chemotherapy: with a 20% response rate for nivolumab compared to an 8.8% response to docetaxel. After one year, 57 patients who took nivolumab were alive while only 33 patients were alive in the docetaxel group.
This study provides compelling evidence for further exploration of immunotherapy for lung cancer treatment.
James D. Immunotherapy nearly doubles survival rate in lung cancer patients. Specialty Pharmacy Times June 8, 2015.
Larkin J, Chiarion-Sileni V, Gonzalez R, et al. Combined nivolumab and ipilimumab or monotherapy in untreated melanoma. New Engl J Med May 31, 2015. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1504030