Immune modifying drugs - a promising option for terminal cancer

Meet Mike Chattle, a man who in 2014 had 26 tumours in his abdomen and many more in his liver and bones from a rapidly spreading colon cancer that had failed to respond to treatment. He was in constant agony unable to even move his neck. Mr Chattle was considering end of life care when his Oncologist suggested joining a radical trial at John Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Centre in Baltimore, using the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab. Within 8 weeks his symptoms had subsided and now, 2 years on he is in complete remission and all his tumours have gone.

Immunotherapy drugs help the body’s immune system identify and destroy cancer cells. However, immunotherapy drugs, such as pembrolizumab used to treat Mr Chattle,were only thought to be effective in a fifth of patients. Now, there is now hope that more patients can benefit from these drugs by using them in conjunction with traditional therapies or in combination with other immunotherapy agents. This breakthrough was presented at the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the world’s most prestigious Oncology conference and was heralded as "one of the most exciting presentations" of ASCO by its chief medical officer, Richard Schilsky.

In the new study by Dr Antonio Palumbo, from the University of Torino in Italy, using immunotherapy drugs in combination with traditional treatments reduced death rates by 61% compared to using standard treatments alone. Dr Antonio described the results as "unprecedented" in myeloma, which is regarded as incurable.

The trial involved 498 patients with terminal skin cancer, myelomas, that had not responded to treatment. Half received standard treatment and the other half received the standard treatment plus the immunotherpay drug Darzalax (daratumumab). The results showed that Darzalax in combination with standard treatment reduced the risk of dying or the cancer spreading by 61% compared to those using standard treatment alone.

It’s not just myeloma patients that can benefit from this new drug regimen. In a seperate study, immunotherapy drug combinations have shown to improve survival amongst patients with advanced lung cancer, which usually kills within a few months. The study gave 38 patients two daily immunotherapy jabs, nivolumab and ipilimumab. More than 83 per cent were still alive after a year. Lung cancer is responsible for 1.6 million deaths per year globally and is the leading cause of cancer related deaths so having a new treatment option could dramatically reduce this number.

Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician said combining immunotherapy drugs had the potential to benefit thousands of people in the UK.

He said more research was needed, but added: "It's very exciting as it looks as though we can increase the power of the treatment."

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