Friday, June 9, 2017

A new class of miraculous cancer drugs

“I want what Jimmy Carter had.” — Cancer patient at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston

WHEN Jimmy Carter revealed on 
August 12 of 2015 that he had an aggressive form of melanoma skin cancer, and tumors had spread to his liver and brain, I believe we all thought it was a death sentence. I certainly did. But just four months later, to the amazement and relief of the world, he announced that he was cancer-free.

  
The source of his miraculous cure was a new drug called pembrolizumab that has proven to be stunningly effective against certain types of advanced-stage cancer. Made by pharmaceutical giant Merck with the brand name of Keytruda, it works by channeling the body's immune system to attack and kill tumor cells.

There's also a competing drug called Opdivo made by Bristol-Myers Squibb that functions in a similar immune-modulating way to destroy cancerous tumors.

I'm sharing two related articles with you. The first is a portion of piece that appeared in 2015 in STAT, a national online health, medicine and scientific discovery publication, that I'm including for background. The second is from The New York Times




‘I want what Jimmy Carter had’: Patients clamor for the president’s cancer drug

By Ike Swetlitz
December 18, 2015

Call it the Jimmy Carter effect.

Last week, after the 91-year-old former president announced that he was cancer-free, patient requests started to pour in for “the president’s drug.”

“I want what Jimmy Carter had,” Dr. Patrick Ott, a melanoma specialist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, heard from one patient — a message that was echoed at cancer clinics nationwide.

The patients were all talking about Keytruda, a new type of cancer drug that unleashes the body’s immune system to attack tumor cells. Carter announced in August that he had an aggressive form of melanoma skin cancer, and that tumors had spread into his liver and brain. He received surgery, radiation, and multiple doses of Keytruda. And on Dec. 6, he said that all signs of cancer were gone.

The public’s response to Carter’s news has been overwhelmingly optimistic — both for the former president and for Keytruda itself. Dr. Antoni Ribas from the UCLA Medical Center, who was involved in the original clinical trials for Merck drug, said he’s been receiving a couple emails a day from patients who bring up Carter’s case, saying they want what he had.

All this free publicity for Merck comes amidst a fierce commercial battle between Keytruda and Opdivo, a similar immune-modulating agent from Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Both drugs won approval last year for treating advanced melanoma; both work the same way — by blocking a protein called PD-1; both cost about the same; both are predicted to bring in billions of dollars; and both have yielded the same kinds of dramatic responses in clinical trials.

Cancer Drug Proves to Be Effective Against Multiple Tumors

By Gina Kolata
June 8, 2017

The 86 cancer patients were a disparate group, with tumors of the pancreas, prostate, uterus or bone. One woman had a cancer so rare there were no tested treatments. She was told to get her affairs in order.

Still, these patients had a few things in common. All had advanced disease that had resisted every standard treatment.

All carried genetic mutations that disrupted the ability of cells to fix damaged DNA. And all were enrolled in a trial of a drug that helps the immune system attack tumors.

The results, published on Thursday in the journal Science, are so striking that the Food and Drug Administration already has approved the drug, pembrolizumab, brand name Keytruda, for patients whose cancers arise from the same genetic abnormality.


Adrienne Skinner of Larchmont, N.Y., had an extraordinarily rare and deadly cancer with no standard treatment. She started taking Keytruda in 2014 and her tumor is gone. Credit Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

It is the first time a drug has been approved for use against tumors that share a certain genetic profile, whatever their location in the body. Tens of thousands of cancer patients each year could benefit.

Click here to read the entire article.

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