Alex was in his early 40s when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer. A non-smoking, healthy man, who exercises regularly and eats relatively well is not who most people think of when they think of lung cancer. However, people exactly like Alex are the new faces of lung cancer diagnoses. Alex is also one of a select few who qualified for a new targeted therapy drug recently approved by the FDA.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death globally, causing 1.7 million deaths a year. In the United States, it is expected to kill more than 154,000 people in 2018, but recent studies are producing credible progress in finding new drugs that, when combined with more traditional chemotherapy, are greatly improving the survival rates among lung cancer patients. The findings are dramatically changing the way physicians are treating lung cancers. “What it suggests is that chemotherapy alone is no longer a standard of care,” said Dr. Leena Gandhi, a leader of the study and director of the Thoracic Medical Oncology Program at the Perlmutter Cancer Center at New York University Langone Health.
So far, four drugs called checkpoint inhibitors, which unleash the patient’s own immune system to kill malignant cells, have been approved by the FDA. “I’ve been treating lung cancer for 25 years now, and I’ve never seen such a big paradigm shift as we’re seeing with immunotherapy,” said Dr. Roy Herbst, Chief of Medical Oncology at the Yale Cancer Center.
In the trial, patients with metastatic nonsquamous non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) who received the drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda) plus chemotherapy had improved overall survival and progression-free survival compared with just chemotherapy alone. The results from the KEYNOTE-189 clinical trial were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Chicago on April 16 and published concurrently in the New England Journal of Medicine.
One of the main factors in the high rate of death due to lung cancer is that the disease is most often undetected until it has spread to other organs of the body. Lung cancer is the second most prevalent form of cancer in men and women and the top cancer killer among both sexes. In addition to the encouraging results from immunotherapy drugs, a newly discovered protein is showing promising results in detecting lung cancer earlier, providing new advanced treatment options to patients at the earliest stages of the disease. “The use of CKAP4 as a biomarker could change current practices regarding the treatment of lung cancer patients, and the diagnostic accuracies may be markedly improved by the combination of CKAP4 and conventional markers,” says Yuichi Sato, Division of Molecular Diagnostics, Kitasato University.
While the news of earlier discovery and new treatment options is very good, reducing risk factors for the disease remains the best approach to avoiding cancer. Exposure to tobacco smoke is one of the leading causes of lung cancer. Smoking marijuana and using electronic cigarettes may also increase the risk of lung cancer, but the actual risk is unknown. People who work with asbestos in a job such as shipbuilding, asbestos mining, insulation, or automotive brake repair and who smoke have a higher risk of developing cancer of the lungs. Exposure to radon has been associated with an increased risk of some types of cancer, including lung cancer. Having your home tested for the presence of Radon is a good and economical method for reducing the risk. Some people also have a genetic predisposition for lung cancer. People with parents, brothers, or sisters with lung cancer could have a higher risk of developing the cancer themselves.
Understanding cancer and how to treat it is constantly evolving toward the day when a cure is discovered. The cure is not here yet, but treatment options have greatly improved in recent decades. The treatments and methods used in clinical trials are promising in every environment in which they are tested. For more information on advancements in cancer detection and treatment, visit http://gettysburgcancercenter.com/.