Researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center have reported that a new experimental drug that has been found effective for treating melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, also holds promise for treating lung cancer. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the county and is the third leading cause of death, overall, behind coronary heart disease and stroke. The results of the study were reported on October 29 at the 15th World Conference on Lung Cancer, which runs from October 27 through October 30 in Sydney, Australia.
The experimental drug, MK-3475, manufactured by Merck pharmaceuticals, was found to hold promise for the treatment on non-small cell lung cancer. The preliminary results of the study were presented by Dr. Edward Garon, director of thoracic oncology at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Garon explained, “These are early results, but we are very encouraged by what we’ve seen so far with this drug. Lung cancer patients who have disease that has grown after two prior therapies do not have many options and we are cautiously optimistic that this might be a treatment that improves their chances in the future.”
The study group comprised 38 patients who had receive previous treatment for non-small cell lung cancer. They received MK-3475 every three weeks; 24% experienced a positive response to the drug and the average overall survival rate was 51weeks. Although a 24% response rate is far from ideal, it is significant for a serious illness such as lung cancer. In addition, the patients who had a positive response had yet to reached the average response duration at the time of the study presentation; thus, their response duration is at least 62 weeks. The researchers next plan to conduct a further trial that will compare two different doses of MK-3475 to standard chemotherapy for lung cancer.
The reason cancer cells multiply and invade tissue is because the immune system does not recognize them as harmful. The researchers note that some cancer cells can elude detection by the immune system by expressing a protein called PD-L1. This protein interacts with the protein PD-1; thus, blocking the immune system from recognizing the cancer as an intruder. MK-3475 empowers the immune system to see the cancer as an enemy and allows activation of T cells, which stand at the front lines of the immune system, to attack and destroy the cancer cells.
As with most anti-cancer drugs, MK-3475 has side-effects. The most commonly reported side-effects were rash (21%), skin itching (18%), fatigue (16%), diarrhea (13%) and joint pain (11%). On a positive note, most of these side-effects were mild in intensity.
Smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer. The earlier in life a person starts smoking, the more often a person smokes, and the more years a person smokes, the greater the risk of lung cancer. If an individual stops smoking, the risk becomes lower over time. Sometimes lung cancer does not cause any symptoms and is found during a chest x-ray done for another condition. Possible signs of non-small cell lung cancer include a persistent cough and shortness of breath. Other symptoms include:
- Chest discomfort or pain.
- Blood in sputum (mucus coughed up from the lungs).
- Loss of appetite.
- Weight loss for no known reason.
- Feeling very fatigued
- Trouble swallowing.
- Swelling in the face and/or veins in the neck.
Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer, comprising 85% of cases. The American Cancer Society notes that 1.4 million people die from it each year.