Chemotherapy used to be the main treatment method for cancer patients, but a growing body of research has found that immunotherapy can be beneficial — and even better — than chemo in some situations.
Now a new study on treatment for a particular type of lung cancer has found that people who undergo immunotherapy have dramatically fewer serious side effects than those who undergo chemo.
The study, which is published in the New England Journal of Medicine, took patients with non-small cell lung cancer, one of the two forms of lung cancer that affects smokers and nonsmokers, and randomly assigned them to undergo chemotherapy, which treats cancer with chemical substances, or immunotherapy, which uses substances to stimulate a person’s immune response to fight off disease. In this case, the immunotherapy patients were given the drug nivolumab.
While there wasn’t a dramatic difference in overall survival rates between patients on either type of treatment, researchers discovered that those who underwent immunotherapy had fewer side effects than those who went through chemo. Of the patients who underwent standard chemotherapy, nine out of 10 reported adverse side effects, compared with just 71 percent of the immunotherapy group. Serious side effects — meaning those that are life-threatening or involve organ damage — occurred in more than half of chemotherapy patients, while only 18 percent of those who underwent immunotherapy experienced them.
Here’s why this matters: About 40 percent of non-small cell lung cancer patients are diagnosed in the later stages of the disease. And while chemotherapy can help prolong their lives, it can also diminish their quality of life because of its negative side effects.
Lead study author David Carbone, MD, PhD, a thoracic oncologist at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, tells Yahoo Beauty that this makes the case for genomic testing in cancer patients. With genomic testing, doctors can identify changes in a person’s chromosomes, genes, or proteins that may have occurred due to cancer. Identifying these changes can help doctors use targeted therapies to go after certain mutations instead of treating all their cells, he explains, as well as determine which patients are the best candidates for immunotherapy — a treatment that tends to be easier on patients. “In general, immunotherapy is much less toxic than chemotherapy,” Carbone says.
Immunotherapy has been in the news recently, after research published in the journal Science found that advanced cancer patients who were given the drug pembrolizumab had dramatic results. In the study, 66 patients had tumors that shrank significantly and stabilized, and among them were 18 patients whose tumors disappeared and haven’t returned. The drug was so effective, the FDA approved it immediately.
Unfortunately, immunotherapy isn’t the best treatment for all forms of cancer, John Heymach, MD, PhD, a professor and chair of the Department of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center (who did not work on the study), tells Yahoo Beauty. “Targeted therapies only work in patients who have a particular mutation,” he says. “If you don’t have those alterations, it’s generally not going to be helpful.”
Still, Heymach says that cancer treatments are rapidly developing. “A short while ago, we had nothing but chemotherapy,” he says. “Now we have other major types of therapy.”
Not everyone benefits from immunotherapy, but “we’re getting better at finding those patients,” he says. “The field is evolving to relegating chemotherapy as a last resort.”
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