A novel therapy for the most common form of lung cancer shows promise and seems to yield largely manageable side effects, according to new research that will be presented at the 49th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

The researchers, from Fox Chase Cancer Center, are conducting an ongoing clinical trial to determine whether the compound is more effective at treating tumors than existing treatments.

Hossein Borghaei, DOs, chief of thoracic medical oncology at Fox Chase, said:

“We’re very excited about this drug. I think if we learn how to use it appropriately, and manage the side effects effectively, it will be a good drug to have in our armamentarium.”

Lung cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer. Patients who currently have an advanced (metastatic) form of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), the most common type of lung cancer, are given a combination of various chemotherapy drugs as treatment.

If that therapy does not work, they are generally treated with a single agent. “We’re trying to find a new option,” explained Borghaei, who is also the director of Lung Cancer Risk Assessment at Fox Chase.

The drug, called nivolumab, is a monoclonal antibody that targets the immune system’s reaction to the disease. Nivolumab acts on the pathway that keeps the tumor safe from the immune system’s efforts to destroy it.

According to Borghaei, taking nivolumab can be compared to taking the brakes off the immune system – “it allows the body’s own immune system to recognize the tumor as foreign and attack it.”

A comparable treatment, a drug called ipilimumab, has been approved for melanoma. Previous research showed that the drug ipilimumab may slow brain tumors in melanoma metastases.

Different adverse reactions occur with nivolumab than one would expect with standard chemotherapy, the experts explained. This is because the drug acts on the immune system.

These side effects, reported on previous trials with this drug, include inflammation of the colon and thyroid inflammation.

Bristol-Myers Squibb, the company marketing the medication, has sponsored other research that indicated nivolumab may have some impact on lung cancer. A phase 1 trial that was previously published showed that 33% of the patients with NSCLC responded to treatment.

Two phase III trials of nivolumab are being conducted by Borghaei and his team in order to the analyze the drug’s effects further.

The experts will compare nivolumab’s efficacy against docetaxel, another commonly used chemotherapy drug, in patients with NSCLC of various histologies who have not responded to prior treatments.

The trials are still in progress and will enroll several hundred patients around the world. It will be a few years before the human studies are completed, the researchers said.

About ten participants have already been enrolled by Fox Chase alone. “We’re going to keep going until we’re told to stop,” Borghaei said.

Patients with NSCLC should talk about trying nivolumab with their doctors if they think it would benefit them.

Borghaei concluded:

“Every drug patients get now was once experimental. There are a lot of new drugs for lung cancer being investigated, so a lot of reason to feel hopeful that new therapies are on the horizon. But the only way this will happen is if patients participate in experimental trials.”

Written by Sarah Glynn