New lung cancer drug should help patients live longer

In Maryland, 60.3 people per 100,000 are diagnosed with lung cancer and that number increases in Baltimore City to 79.5 per 100,000, according to health experts. Those figures are just for white residents.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to African-Americans, it’s higher,” said Dr. Kashif Ali of the Maryland Oncology Hematology and local expert in Immuno-Oncology.

Approximately 67.6 African-American residents per 100,000 are diagnosed with lung cancer, Dr. Ali said, quoting statistics. That number rises to 81.5 per 100,000 in Baltimore City.

“Genetics is part of it and so is the socio-economic status,” Ali said. “The lack of education in certain communities contributes to it as well. But, over the past couple of years the general incidence have dropped because of education and getting people more educated about the risk of smoking, the benefits of cancer screenings, going to the doctor and catching things early.”

Still, health experts need to do more in communities of color to educate them about the risks of lung cancer, Ali said.

Now, health officials have cited new developments in Immuno-Oncology, an innovative area of research that seeks to help the body’s own immune system fight cancer that offers hope to patients diagnosed with lung cancer.

Recent information presented by researchers has revealed that patients with lung cancer who are treated with the drug, Opdivo, a type of medicine that uses Immuno-Oncology to help the body fight cancer are now living for three years after diagnosis.

Bristol-Myers Squibb Company announced the three-year overall survival data from two pivotal randomized studies called CheckMate -017 and CheckMate -057.

Those studies evaluated Opdivo versus the chemotherapy drug, docetaxel in patients with previously treated metastatic non-small cell lung cancer— the most common type of lung cancer.

In CheckMate -017, 16 percent of patients treated with Opdivo were alive at three years versus the six percent treated with docetaxel. In CheckMate -057, 18 percent of patients treated with Opdivo were alive at three years versus nine percent who took docetaxel.

“One of the things we learned over the past few years is that the immune system has the natural ability to fight cancer,” Dr. Ali said. “In general, our bodies develop cells that look like cancers on a daily basis and it’s the type of cell that’s called the T-cell that fights it off.”

In order to avoid being attacked by the immune system, healthy cells are disguised with molecules that turn T-Cells off whenever they come near. As normal cells transition into a cancerous state, some pick up the ability to coat themselves in these so-called checkpoint molecules, allowing them to put the brakes on even a robust immune system attack, according to one published report.

“If we can activate that ability of immune system to fight off cancers we can do it a lot better and with less side effects compared to other treatments we’ve had in the past which were mostly focused on chemotherapy,” Dr. Ali said. “There are a few drugs that have come out, Opdivo being the one mentioned in the studies and the way this drug works is the way some of the immune therapy drugs work and what happens is that the cancer cells growing in your body become very smart and they figure out a way to trick the immune system by making a block so when the T-cells come and attack they become inactivated.”

The blocks then prevent the immune system from killing off the cancer cells. Opdivo removes that block from cancer cells preventing T-cells from becoming inactivated, according to Dr. Ali.

“The nice thing about this drug is that it’s actually using your own immune system to fight this cancer instead of introducing toxins like chemotherapy which generally leads to a lot more side effects,” he said.