Thursday, September 10, 2015
Immune System Drugs Melt Tumors In New Study, Leading A Cancer Revolution
APR 20, 2015 @ 09:01 AM 192,484 VIEWS
Matthew Herper ,FORBES STAFF
I cover science and medicine, and believe this is biology's century.
The 49-year-old woman had had three melanoma growths removed from her skin, but now the disease was spreading further. A several-centimeter-sized growth under her left breast went deep into her chest wall. Some of the tissue in the tumor was dying because of lack of blood flow.
Doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center offered her an experimental combination of two drugs: Opdivo and Yervoy, both manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb, both among a vanguard of new medicines that boost the immune system to attack tumors. Three weeks later she came back for her second dose.
“She didn’t say anything and when I examined her, I said, ‘Wait a minute!’” says Paul Chapman, the doctor who was treating her. “She said, ‘Yeah, it kind of just dissolved.’”
Where the tumor was before was, literally, a hole – a wound doctors hope will heal with time. Chapman took some fluid from it, and found there were no melanoma cells there. “I’ve been in immunotherapy for a long time, and we’ve talked and fantasized about reactions like this, but I’ve never seen anything this quickly,” he says. He skipped her next dose, and gave her two more before she stopped treatment because of the diarrhea the drug combination was causing. She has no detectable melanoma – amazing for a disease that has long been considered close to untreatable.
The story, published as a case report this morning in the New England Journal of Medicine, alongside a 142-patient study that tested the combination of Opdivo and Yervoy against Yervoy alone. The results show that the anonymous woman’s case was anything but a fluke, as the combination of the two drugs had unprecedented cancer-fighting potency, but also caused toxicity: 50% of patients had side effects that were severe or life-threatening. But an amazing 22% of patients – 16 of them – had what’s called a complete response. As with Chapman’s patient, all their cancer seemed to melt away.
“To me it’s a really graphic demonstration that the immune system is sitting there, waiting,” says Jedd Wolchok, Director, Ludwig Collaborative Laboratory at Memorial Sloan Kettering and lead author of the new study. “And there are immune cells which are fully prepared to get rid of these tumors. But they are being held in check.”