Lung Cancer Rx Might Outperform Chemo

Lung cancer treatment with immunotherapy medication nivolumab tied to longer life in patients compared to chemotherapy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) When you're sick, you may feel like the immune system is a weak tool for protecting the body. But new evidence is showing how medications might activate the immune system to treat a very serious illness — lung cancer.

A new study found evidence that immunotherapy, which uses the body's own immune system to fight a disease, helped patients with lung cancer live longer than patients treated with chemotherapy.

"In the 20 years that I’ve been in practice, I consider this a major milestone,” said lead study author Julie Brahmer, MD, of Johns Hopkins Medicine's Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center in Baltimore, in a news release.

Dr. Brahmer and team compared traditional chemotherapy treatment to treatment with an immunotherapy medication, nivolumab (sold under the brand name Opdivo).

The study involved 272 patients with squamous-cell non-small-cell lung cancer, a common form of lung cancer where cancer cells form in the tissue lining the lungs. These patients had all received initial chemotherapy, but their cancer was still progressing. In chemotherapy, doctors give patients powerful drugs that attack cancer cells.

The study patients were split into two groups. In the first group, 135 patients received the immunotherapy drug nivolumab. The second group of 137 patients received docetaxel (sold under the brand name Taxotere), a chemotherapy drug.

Overall, Dr. Brahmer and team found better results among the nivolumab group — who had a 41 percent lower relative risk of dying from lung cancer than the chemotherapy group.

The immunotherapy patients had a median overall survival of 9.2 months, compared to six months in the chemotherapy group. The immunotherapy patients also had a median of 3.5 months with out any disease progression, compared to 2.8 months in the chemo group.

And after one year, 42 percent of the patients taking nivolumab were still alive, compared to only 24 percent of the chemotherapy group — nearly a doubled survival rate among the immunotherapy patients.

The patients taking nivolumab also reported fewer and less severe side effects. Only 7 percent of this group reported severe side effects, compared to 55 percent of the chemo patients.

"Immunotherapy can produce severe side effects, and it’s important to be vigilant in efforts to manage them," Dr. Brahmer said. "However, it is less toxic than chemotherapy."

Further research into how immunotherapy might best be used and which patients would most benefit from the treatment is needed, Dr. Brahmer and team said. However, these researchers said they were encouraged by these results.

“This solidifies immunotherapy as a treatment option in lung cancer," Dr. Brahmer said.

This study was published online May 31 in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, which produces nivolumab under the brand name Opdivo, funded this research.

Review Date: 
May 29, 2015
Last Updated:
June 3, 2015