There is very exciting news for lung cancer patients this week. A new set of drugs that boost the immune system has shown an over 50% increase in the survival rate of patients with the most common type of lung cancer.
Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer deaths around the world, with 1.7 million deaths a year and over 150,000 in the United States alone.
These new drugs are often given before surgery. Some surgeons say they can almost see the tumors melting away.
Called checkpoint inhibitors, they unleash the patient's own immune system to fight lung cancer. How does it work? It isn't totally clear, but chemotherapy can burst bubbles of cancer cells and these immunotherapy drugs help the body's own immune system to identify and kill off these cells. The immunotherapy drugs work best when taken in conjunction with chemotherapy.
Dr. Roy Herbst, a lung cancer specialist at Yale Cancer Center suggests that in the future every lung cancer patient may be given the option of immunotherapy first.
Sadly, not all patients are candidates for this therapy and some suffer severe side effects. At more than $100,000 a year treatment can also be cost-prohibitive. It's recommended the immunotherapy drugs be taken for two years.
“I have never seen progress move so fast,” Herbst told NBC News. Who knows what hope the upcoming years will hold for cancer patients. These are very exciting times in this field of medicine.
Some patients are still alive eight years later. Even though it won't be considered a cure until people have survived for at least 10 years, people are hopeful. The next few years will tell.
Denise Grady, nytimes.com
Maggie Fox, nbcnews.com