The test results, announced on Sunday at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual conference in Chicago, have had scientists completely awe-struck, proving the technique of immunotherapy is adept at curing a whole range of cancers, including ovarian, lung, womb and bowel types.
The evidence, according to experts at Yale, is so overwhelming that it’s the strongest seen in favor of a new treatment. Doctors are promising results within this decade, following the British-led trial.
“I think it’s huge,” Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Centre, told reporters. He calls the results “spectacular” and thinks we are looking at a “paradigm shift in the way oncology is being treated.”
The powerful new combination of drugs has cured more than half of the patients in the trial, with tumors either completely eradicated or shrinking. The test was done on 945 patients with advanced melanoma, and carried out with the drugs Ipilimumab and Nivolumab.
In more than half the cases, the tumors receded or stabilized for nearly an entire year. And in more than one in 10 cases, the combination of both drugs completely wiped out the tumor.
It was also discovered that combining the two drugs produced even greater effects, as the researchers outline in their study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Immunotherapy, as the treatment is known, is touted as a once-in-a-generation development able to radically alter the standards of cancer treatment. And, most importantly, it provides a much healthier and less painful alternative to chemotherapy, which wreaks havoc on the body. Furthermore, current treatments allow life to be prolonged by only about nine months.
Although the 900-plus patients are yet to publish their stories after two years of treatment, doctors are very optimistic about complete recovery.
“I’m seeing this work in almost every cancer,” Herbst continued. Remarkably, the therapy was most pronounced in its treatment of the more difficult forms of cancer.
“The potential for long-term survival, effective cure, is definitely there,” he added.
Explaining how the therapy works, Professor of Medical Oncology at Cancer Research UK, Peter Johnson, says the treatment works by “re-educating” the immune system, and claims it’s the biggest breakthrough in four decades, according to the Telegraph.
One of the drugs – Ipilimumab, was approved by British doctors last year. It is administered into the vein every three months and costs about £100,000 British (around $152,065) for a year of treatment. Nivolumab is administered once every two weeks before it stops having any effect.
The organization’s senior science information officer, Dr Alan Worsley, was quoted by the Guardian as saying the combination packs “a powerful one-two punch” in the fight against melanoma.
“Together these drugs could release the brakes on the immune system while blocking cancer’s ability to hide from it,” he explained.
However, combining these treatments also increases the likelihood of potentially quite severe side-effects. Identifying which patients are most likely to benefit will be key to bringing our best weapons to bear against the disease,” he added, although these aren’t nearly as serious as a terminal illness, including mostly fatigue, rashes or diarrhoea.
“The evidence emerging from clinical trials suggests that we are at the beginning of a whole new era for cancer treatments,” he added, also saying that the types of cancer affected by the treatment kill up to 50,000 people every year – around one third of all cancer deaths.
This is echoed by lead author Dr. James Larkin of the Royal Marsden Hospital.
“For immunotherapies, we’ve never seen tumor shrinkage rates over 50 percent so that’s very significant to see,” he was cited as saying by The Telegraph. “This is a treatment modality that I think is going to have a big future for the treatment of cancer.”
All the researchers expect the new drug combo to become standard treatment soon.