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Less toxic and prolongs life: scientists have found a new way to fight cancer

The medicine used in cancer immunotherapy can save some patients from debilitating chemotherapy and also prolong their life, the researchers say. Writes about this with the BBC.

Фото: Depositphotos

In clinical trials, a drug called pembrolizumab was found to inhibit the development of various types of head and neck cancer for an average of two years - five times longer than chemotherapy.

It also produced far fewer side effects.

"I can live a normal life"

70-year-old Derek Kitcherside of their county of Leicestershire (Britain) is sure that he would not have been in this world if it had not been for pembrolizumab.

In 2011, he was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. When, three years later, after standard treatment, he began to cough up blood, he was told that the cancer had spread to the lungs and might not be treatable anymore.

Derek asked to take part in clinical trials and traveled to London every three weeks for treatment with pembrolizumab.

“The tumor was constantly decreasing, and after each visit I felt better and better,” he said. "It changed my life a lot."

Derek’s condition is regularly checked using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which shows that the cancer is not developing and the tumor is still shrinking.

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“I am very glad that I can continue to live normally,” says Derek. “I think without the medicine I would no longer be alive.”

What is immunotherapy?

This treatment, which does not kill the cancer cells themselves, but stimulates the body's immune system so that it can detect and attack them.

Pembrolizumab is already used to treat a wide variety of advanced cancers, including melanoma, a type of skin cancer that spreads very quickly.

According to experts, it can be used to treat many other types of this disease.

When is it used?

Immunotherapy is usually used if standard treatment, such as chemotherapy, has failed. But this study, conducted on 882 patients from 37 countries, suggests that it should be used earlier, and for some people this should be the preferred first treatment option.

The drug is regularly administered to patients through a dropper, but now the treatment is carried out if the cancer has returned or spread and is considered incurable.

Why is it better than current methods?

According to the study, this treatment is softer, safer, and can also extend the life of patients for a longer period.

However, immunotherapy may not be suitable for everyone.

When treating people with advanced head and neck cancer, the drug helped one in four - their disease became less aggressive or stabilized for an average of 23 months.

For comparison, although a significant proportion of patients (36%) responded positively to standard chemotherapeutic treatment, they improved on average only four and a half months.

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Patients with larger and more aggressive tumors were given the drug in combination with chemotherapy to help slow down the progression of the disease: in this case, the disease could be kept on average for seven months.

Who can she help?

According to Professor Kevin Harrington, a clinical oncology consultant at The Royal Marsden NHS Founation Trust, who led the study, the main task is to identify people with tumors who will respond to this treatment.

Doctors can solve this problem by testing for the presence of the PD-L1 immune marker in the tumor.

Professor Harrington says about 85% of people with advanced or recurrent head and neck cancer can be treated with pembrolizumab - that's about 1300 patients a year.

Why is this treatment milder?

Today, the main treatment recommended is the toxic combination of chemotherapy and antibody therapy, which often makes patients very ill. Such extreme treatment can also damage the kidneys, hands, and feet.

Patients who were treated with immunotherapy experienced far fewer side effects. “It's smarter and less toxic — patients live longer and feel better,” says Professor Harrington.

What does this mean for cancer patients?

“This is a very interesting and promising study,” says Professor Paul Workman of the Cancer Research Institute. - First, because it demonstrates that immunotherapy can have significant benefits for some patients with head and neck cancer, if used as an initial treatment, and second, because researchers have developed a test to determine which patients are likely to have it. will help".

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According to him, all new drugs entering the market should be accompanied by a test to determine exactly who they are most likely to help, who are his target recipients.

In the United States and the EU, pembrolizumab has already been approved for self-administration and, together, chemotherapy for advanced head and neck cancer. In the UK this has not happened yet.

The National Institute of Health and Best Practices is currently evaluating the drug. It can be approved in the country by the summer of 2020.

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