Newer drugs are substantially improving the chances of survival for some people with hard-to-treat forms of lung, breast and prostate cancer.
Newer drugs are substantially improving the chances of survival for some people with hard-to-treat forms of lung, breast and prostate cancer, doctors reported at the world’s largest cancer conference.
Among those who have benefited is Roszell Mack Jr., who at age 87 is still able to work at a Lexington, Ky., horse farm, nine years after being diagnosed with lung cancer that had spread to his bones and lymph nodes.
“I go in every day, I’m the first one there,” said Mack, who helped test Merck’s Keytruda, a therapy that helps the immune system identify and fight cancer. “I’m feeling well and I have a good quality of life.”
The downside: Many of these drugs cost $100,000 or more a year, although what patients pay out of pocket varies depending on insurance, income and other criteria.
The results were featured Saturday and Sunday at the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago and some were published by the New England Journal of Medicine. Companies that make the drugs sponsored the studies, and some study leaders have financial ties.
Here are some highlights:
Immunotherapy drugs such as Keytruda have transformed the treatment of many types of cancer, but they’re still fairly new and don’t help most patients. The longest study yet of Keytruda in patients with advanced lung cancer found that 23 percent of those who got the drug as part of their initial therapy survived at least five years, whereas 16 percent of those who tried other treatments first did.
In the past, only about 5 percent of such patients lived that long.
“I’m a big believer that it’s not just about duration of life, quality of life is important,” said Dr. Leora Horn, of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tenn. She enrolled Mack in the 550-person study.
Mack said he had manageable side effects — mostly some awful itching — after starting on Keytruda four years ago. He went off it last winter and scans showed no active cancer; he and his doctor hope it’s in remission.
Last year, a smaller study reported five-year survival rates of 16 percent for similar patients given another immunotherapy, Opdivo.
The risk of this rises with age, but about 48,000 cases each year in the U.S. are in women under age 50. About 70 percent are “hormone-positive, HER2-negative” — that is, the cancer’s growth is fueled by estrogen or progesterone and not by the gene that the drug Herceptin targets.
In a study of 672 women with such cancers that had spread or were very advanced, adding the Novartis drug Kisqali to the usual hormone blockers as initial therapy helped more than hormone therapy alone.
After 3 1/2 years, 70 percent of women on Kisqali were alive, compared to 46 percent of the rest. Side effects were more common with Kisqali.
The options keep expanding for men with prostate cancer that has spread beyond the gland. Standard treatment is drugs that block the male hormone testosterone, which helps these cancers grow, plus chemotherapy or a newer drug called Zytiga.
|Read on: New drugs for cancer showing progress|