Results from a clinical trial comparing standard chemotherapy with nivolumab, an immunotherapy drug for the treatment of squamous-non-small cell lung cancer patients, revealed that patients treated with nivolumab lived an average of 3.2 months more than those treated with chemotherapy.
The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, were presented during the annual meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2015, demonstrated that those treated with nivolumab had a survival rate 2 times higher when compared to patients treated with chemotherapy (42 versus 24%, respectively).
“This solidifies immunotherapy as a treatment option in lung cancer. In the 20 years that I’ve been in practice, I consider this a major milestone,” said Julie Brahmer, director of the Thoracic Oncology Program at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.
Brahmer also emphasized: “Patients who respond to immunotherapy tend to continue their responses for long durations, and these lengthier responses are cut off in calculations of median overall survival.” She explained that 1 and 2-year survival data might give additional information on the effectiveness of these drugs, in addition to the overall median survival rates themselves.
Nivolumab belongs to a group of immunotherapies called “checkpoint inhibitors” that function by disrupting a signaling mechanism used by cancer cells to avoid neutralization by immune cells. The system relies on a link between PD-1, the receptor on immune cells, and PD-L1 their compatible ligand existent on tumor cells. Checkpoint inhibitors avoid this particular connection and enhance the effectiveness of the anti-tumoral immune response.
Researchers randomly selected 135 patients with advanced squamous non-small cell lung cancer that progressed even after chemotherapy to receive nivolumab and compared them with 137 patients who received docetaxel (chemotherapy).
The median overall survival of those receiving nivolumab was of 9.2 months versus 6 months for patients who received docetaxel. A year after treatment, 42% of patients on nivolumab were still alive compared to 24% of those who received docetaxel. The median disease-progression free survival associated with nivolumab was of 3.5 months versus 2.8 months for docetaxel. Nivolumab also reduced the relative risk of death associated with lung cancer by 41% in those treated with immunotherapy.