The drug nivolumab stops tumors from camouflaging themselves from the immune system appears to significantly boost survival rates in people with a form of lung cancer that is almost incurable unless removed surgically before it spreads. Some people who received the drug have seen their tumours disappear completely.
One way that cancer cells evade the immune system is by interacting with a molecule on the surface of white blood cells called PD-1. Nivolumab blocks PD-1 so tumour cells can’t interact with it. This reawakens the immune system, allowing it to attack the cancer.
The two-year survival rate of the group [with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) – the most common form of the disease, accounting for 85 per cent of all cases. Participants received either 1, 3, or 10 milligrams of nivolumab per kilogram of bodyweight daily for up to 96 months] on nivolumab was more than double that in a group given standard therapies. “We found 1 in 4 patients alive at two years, compared with 1 in 10 for conventional chemotherapy,” says Michael Giordano, head of oncology development at Bristol-Myers Squibb, the company behind nivolumab.
Last year, nivolumab was reported to produce dramatic improvements in people with advanced malignant melanoma . The Chicago meeting will hear of new, encouraging results from melanoma trials: of 107 people treated with nivolumab at least three years ago as a last resort, 48 per cent were alive at 2 years, with 41 per cent still alive after three years. “We’ve gone from zero survival at three years to 40 per cent,” says Giordano. “That’s very clear evidence of the value of immune-based therapies.”
A combination of nivulomab with another immunotherapy drug, called ipilimumab, also developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb, is also working well in kidney cancer that has spread to other organs.