Patients undergoing the new type of treatment - which harnesses the immune system so it targets and destroys only cancer cells - typically lived longer with fewer reports of the cancer returning. But when the drugs work, responses can be long-lasting, and researchers are rushing to find ways to combine treatments to improve their effects and to determine which formulation is best for each patient.
A separate study by Johns Hopkins University and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre tested the immunotherapy drug, nivolumab, on 21 patients about to have surgery for non-small-cell lung cancer. Many times, they give it after chemotherapy has failed.
In the study of 616 patients, pembrolizumab (Merck's Keytruda) combined with standard chemotherapy halved the risk of death or having the cancer compared to chemo alone after almost one year.
The study, a phase III clinical trial testing treatment effectiveness and side effects, included 616 patients at 118 medical facilities around the globe. The immune-activating drug was a checkpoint inhibitor called pembrolizumab, or Keytruda, made by Merck, which paid for the study.
The findings, published in the the New England Journal of Medicine, were reported on Monday at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in Chicago. I lead the Yale lung team.
Non-squamous lung cancer patients make up about 80% of all the non-small cell lung cancers, so that amounts to over 150,000 patients in the USA each year, said Gomez, who was not involved in the new study.
But the benefits for Opdivo and Yervoy lasted less than two months on average.
One group of 400 patients received standard chemotherapy and the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab, while a smaller group of patients received chemotherapy. But that is advance in this cancer.
The estimated survival at 12 months was 69.2 percent in the group that received immunotherapy, and 49.4 percent in those who did not.