“Lung cancer patients are now living longer and better.”
This was the main message of Dr. Gerardo Cornelio of St. Luke’s Medical Center and Dr. Tho Lye Mun from Malaysia during the recent lung symposium, “Redefining Survival Expectations: Introducing the New Standard in NSCLC Management” held at the Edsa Shangri-La Hotel.
Based on recently released research data, 23.2 patients of patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) who have never been treated are now surviving for five years or more after undergoing immunotherapy.
This is a significant increase from past survival figures, which only reached around 5 percent—a low number that marked lung cancer as the deadliest cancer in the world.
“[Lung cancer] is the biggest killer in cancer among men globally, and it kills more people than breast, colon, and prostate cancer combined,” said Dr. Tho.
Dr. Cornelio, whose presentation focused on the analysis of five-year survival data for NSCLC, mentioned one possible reason why lung cancer death rates had been so high. In the past, he said, we had limited medical options to effectively treat it.
“For a long time, we did not have so much to offer. With chemotherapy in the past, we were only able to see at least a one-year survival from almost all therapies that we’ve given. These patients were living at least for a year, and then when they progress, we go to second line, which does not offer so much. These patients ultimately die of the disease,” stated Dr. Cornelio.
The advent of innovation in lung cancer treatment, however, provides a glimmer of hope for many patients.
“Now we are seeing a lot of patients living longer because of the new therapies that we have—the palliative agents, the immunotherapy era that we have right now, in combination with chemotherapy. We are seeing this one-year survival broken, and we are seeing more and more patients living longer,” enthused Dr. Cornelio.
The immunotherapy Dr. Cornelio mentioned is one of the newest developed cancer-fighting technologies, from which the five-year lung cancer survival data came.
While chemotherapy works by killing cancer cells directly, immunotherapy works by helping the immune system detect and fight cancer cells, so the body is able to eradicate cancer in the same way that it is able to fight other diseases such as the common cold. The novel treatment prohibits a specific mechanism by which cancer cells evade the body’s natural system of protection.
This is because in most cases, when the body’s immune cells approach cancers, the cancer cells use a protein called PD-L1 to “switch off” the immune cells, thus preventing them from detecting and destroying the cancer.
Immunotherapy works by blocking the “switch” cancer uses to turn off the immune cell. This way, immune cells retain their ability to detect and destroy cancers exactly the way nature designed the immune system to protect the body.
Other studies are also finding out that by combining chemotherapy and immunotherapy, lung cancer patients are getting even better chances of beating their disease than patients who receive either chemotherapy or immunotherapy.
The practice of combining chemotherapy and immunotherapy to manage lung cancer is called combination therapy.
According to Dr. Tho, patients on combination treatment have better responses than those who receive chemotherapy alone. “Patients [are staying] well for a longer period of time with better quality of life,” he said.
Dr. Tho also addressed the question of side effects, which are always a risk with the intake of any substance powerful enough to treat a biological disorder.
“I think the benefits outweigh the potential side effects in terms of combining the treatments. Although the side effects, numerically, are slightly higher, these effects are manageable, they aren’t by any means extreme or excessive,” said Dr. Tho.
The symposium where Dr. Tho and Dr. Cornelio presented these data was organized by the Philippine Society of Medical Oncology and MSD in the Philippines.
“At MSD, our primary focus is translating breakthrough science into medicines that have the greatest potential to improve the health of patients across a wide range of disease areas. Our immunotherapy research in lung cancer has already produced very encouraging data to date, and our work isn’t done yet,” explained Dr. Christine Dela Cruz, associate vice president of oncology global medical affairs at MSD.
Dr. Dela Cruz added, “It is the core of our mission—to help patients prolong and improve their lives. We at MSD work collaboratively with stakeholders to develop new approaches to funding cancer care that ensure patients benefit quickly from innovative health care such as immuno-oncology, which has increased overall survival rate for cancer patients.”