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A Sea Change in Lung Cancer Treatment

New study shows lifesaving results with immunotherapy drug

Woman holding models of lungs

Ben Schonewille/Getty Images

Using an immunotherapy drug in tandem with chemotherapy can better treat certain lung cancers.

A study presented at Monday’s American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting and simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows dramatic results with using an immunotherapy drug in tandem with chemotherapy to treat certain lung cancers.

In releasing the results, the study authors said that they were surprised at how large a survival rate the drug combo achieved and that it seemed to clearly position immunotherapy as a frontline treatment in fighting lung cancer.

“For the first time, adding another drug has significantly impacted the long-term outlook for those patients,” the study’s lead author, Leena Gandhi, an oncologist at NYU Langone Health, told the Washington Post. She added, “Instead of chemo being the backbone on which to improve, immunotherapy is now the backbone on which we build.” 

Her trial included 616 patients, ages 34 to 84, with nonsquamous non-small cell lung cancer, a common type of the disease. They were treated with either only chemo (plus a placebo) or with the combination of chemotherapy and an immunotherapy drug by Merck called Keytruda. After 10 and a half months, those in the dual-treatment group were half as likely to have died as those in the chemo-only group.

The drug combination had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration last May, based on an early-stage trial. According to news accounts, many doctors did not subsequently adopt it because initial results didn’t show a large survival benefit.

In reacting to the news of the latest study, top oncologists described the study as practice-changing while recognizing that the drug cocktail with such impressive overall success worked very well for some patients and not at all for others.

Along with the headline-grabbing study, two other studies presented at the cancer research conference similarly underscored the promise of fighting cancer through immunotherapy. One of them, a small study by a team at Johns Hopkins and Memorial Sloan-Kettering, showed a benefit by using the drugs on patients before they had surgery to remove lung tumors. 

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