New lung cancer treatment doubles life expectancy

According to a “milestone” trial, a new therapy can more than double life expectancy in some lung cancer patients.

The BBC reports how the revolutionary new drug, named Nivolumab, works in conjunction with the body’s defences, preventing cancerous cells from concealing themselves and making them open to attack by the patient’s own immune system.

The findings, published in the American Society of Clinical Oncology, were the result of a study of 582 patients conducted in both the US and Europe. It focused on patients who had advanced lung cancer, and for whom other treatments had been tried or were no longer effective. The study found that those on standard therapy lived, on average, for a further 9.4 months, while those taking the new drug lived for 12.2 months. Within that group, however, some did significantly better, living up to 19.4 months.

 Normally, the human immune system attacks infections and anomalous bodies, including cancer cells – but tumours are able to produce a protein called PD-L1 which effectively disables such attacks, causing the body to treat them as harmless. Nivolumab – one of a group of so-called “checkpoint inhibitors” – prevents this happening, leaving tumours vulnerable to the body’s defences.

The BBC quoted lead researcher Dr Luis Paz-Ares, from the Hospital Universitario Doce de Octubre in Madrid, Spain, as saying: “[The results] mark a milestone in the development of new treatment options for lung cancer.”

Lung cancer is the second most common form of cancer in the UK after breast cancer – but it is far more deadly, accounting for 35,400 deaths in the UK in 2012, compared to 11,700 deaths from breast cancer. This makes lung cancer the most common cause of cancer death in the UK, responsible for more than 1 in 5 cancer deaths. Lung cancer often has few symptoms until a late stage, which means that by the time it is diagnosed there are far fewer options for treatment and the probability of success is greatly reduced.

Mr. Aman Coonar, Clinical Advisor to Check4Cancer on lung cancer and a consultant at Papworth Hospital since 2007, commented: “This treatment – and other immunotherapy treatments l – offer new hope and may bring about a major change in the way we treat lung cancer, though of course full evaluation is required. Prevention and early detection remain very important.”