Updated 15 March 2017

Immunotherapy drug shows promise against lung cancer

Lung cancer remains the leading cancer killer in the United States, but a different approach extended survival for advanced patients by several months.

An immunotherapy drug called Tecentriq (atezolizumab) extended the survival of lung cancer patients for several months longer than chemotherapy and caused fewer side effects, according to a new study.

Leading cancer killer

The findings are from an early analysis of 850 patients with non-small cell lung cancer in a phase 3 trial funded by the drug's makers.

According to the American Cancer Society, non-small cell lung cancer is the major form of the disease, comprising up to 85 percent of cases. Lung cancer remains the leading cancer killer in the United States, with more than 158,000 people expected to die from the disease this year.

The patients in the new trial had run out of treatment options. They received either Tecentriq or the chemotherapy drug docetaxel – the standard treatment for this type of cancer.

Read: Lung cancer trigger spotted

According to a team led by Dr David Gandara of the University of California, Davis Comprehensive Cancer Centre, patients who took Tecentriq survived for an average of 13.8 months, compared with 9.6 months for those on chemotherapy.

Patients taking Tecentriq also had lower rates of severe side effects. About 15 percent experienced such issues while on Tecentriq, compared to about 43 percent of those on standard chemotherapy, Gandara's team said.

Still, side effects from either regimen could be severe, the study authors noted. Overall, close to eight percent of patients in the Tecentriq group stopped treatment compared with nearly 19 percent of those in the chemotherapy group.

Making cancer cells more vulnerable

The study, published in The Lancet, was funded by F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. and Genentech Ltd. It was an "open label" trial, meaning that both patients and doctors knew whether or not patients were receiving Tecentriq.

The drug helps curb tumours by blocking what's known as the "programmed death ligand 1" (PD-L1) protein. This protein resides on the surface of tumour cells and is thought to help the cell hide from immune system attack. So, drugs like Tecentriq block the protein, making cancer cells more vulnerable.

"This is the first phase 3 trial of a PD-L1-directed immunotherapy in lung cancer," Gandara said in a journal news release. "The fact that it improves survival in patients with all categories of PD-L1 expression is highly encouraging and adds to the already known benefits of immunotherapy in lung cancer," he added.

Read: Immunotherapy for tumours

Dr Kevin Sullivan is an oncologist at Northwell Health Cancer Institute in Lake Success, New York. He noted that Tecentriq is now "the third drug in this very unique class of immunotherapies to be approved for use in lung cancer in the 'second line' setting – after patients have already failed treatment with standard chemotherapy."

However, "these drugs can have some serious side effects that clinicians need to be aware of, including life-threatening autoimmune complications," Sullivan said. "Additionally, it still needs to be understood why certain patients do not benefit from these therapies or why their disease eventually progresses after obtaining a response in their tumours."

Read more:

Immunotherapy not just for melanoma

Immunotherapy cancer trial cures 90% of participants

More types of cancer treated with immunotherapy


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