Immunotherapy drugs better together against cancer
Thousands more patients with terminal cancer could go into remission if immunotherapy drugs were used in combination, scientists have said.
The drugs, which have boosted survival for dying patients, enable the body’s immune system to hunt and attack cancer cells. But only about a fifth of patients respond well to the therapies, and experts are looking for ways to drive up that number.
Clinical trials are starting to combine immunotherapy drugs instead of using them alone, to increase their power. Adding immunotherapy to standard treatments is also producing positive results.
Addressing the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) conference in Chicago, US vice president Joe Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer, spoke of the importance of the drugs, adding: “It wasn’t that long ago that immunotherapy was out there somewhere in the hinterlands.”
In one new trial – described as “one of the most exciting presentations” for ASCO by its chief medical officer, Richard Schilsky – patients with multiple myeloma experienced extraordinary results.
All 498 patients had cancer that had come back or had not responded to treatment. Half were given the immunotherapy drug Darzalax (daratumumab) in combination with two standard treatments, bortezomib and dexamethasone, while half received the standard treatments on their own.
The results showed that people given immunotherapy plus standard drugs had a 61 per cent reduced risk of dying or their cancer getting worse, compared with those given standard treatments.
Response rates also doubled with the addition of Darzalax. About 59 per cent of those patients’ tumours shrink significantly, compared with 29 per cent in the other group.
Nearly a fifth of patients (19 per cent) had a complete response – which means doctors could find no trace of cancer in their bodies – compared with 9 per cent given standard treatment.
Dr Antonio Palumbo, from the University of Torino in Italy, who led the study, described the results as “unprecedented” in myeloma, which is regarded as incurable and is extremely difficult to treat.
In other research, combining two immunotherapy drugs produced a response for almost half of patients with advanced lung cancer, which usually kills within a few months. About 38 patients were given two daily immunotherapy jabs, nivolumab and ipilimumab, and 47 per cent responded; more than 83 per cent still alive after a year.
Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said the idea of 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.
“The darker side is that the side effects seem to be more common.
“It looks as though, if we can find new ways to combine different immune treatments, we’ll be able to treat more patients effectively, and potentially be able to start using them in other types of cancer.”
In another early-stage study presented at ASCO, a quarter of patients with advanced bladder cancer given immunotherapy as a first treatment instead of after other treatment also had their tumours shrink. About 7 per cent of the patients – who were all too frail or sick for chemotherapy – had a complete response and doctors could find no trace of cancer.
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