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Experimental Drug Helps Body Fight Melanoma

Some patients kept disease at bay for more than a year after last dose of nivolumab

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Brenda Goodman

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, March 3, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- An experimental drug that harnesses the power of the body's immune system to fight cancer has helped some patients with advanced melanoma keep their disease in check for several years, a new study indicates.

Researchers think the drug, which is called nivolumab, may help reset the immune system so that as a tumor adds new cells, the immune system is able to clear them away.

"We're hypothesizing that we have reset the balance between the immune system and the tumor so there's a state of equilibrium or co-existence. And that situation can go on for quite a long time, and we don't really know how long it can go on," said study author Dr. Suzanne Topalian, director of the melanoma program at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

An expert who was not involved in the study called the results "remarkable."

"This really offers patients tremendous amounts of hope. We're talking about potentially lengthening patients' survival to the point that they might not die of their disease at all," said Dr. Anthony Olszanski, co-director of the Medical Oncology Melanoma Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center, in Philadelphia.

The finding is part of the latest round of results of an early trial of nivolumab, which was tested in 107 patients. The patients enrolled in the study between 2008 and 2012.

Some tumors make molecules that switch off the immune system's ability to recognize and kill cancer cells. Nivolumab essentially releases the brakes a cancer has applied to immune attack cells, restoring the body's ability to clear the disease.

All of the patients in the study had the dangerous skin cancer known as advanced melanoma, and 80 percent had tumors that had spread to other organs. More than half of patients had tried at least two previous treatments without success.

People in the study received intravenous doses of the drug every two weeks for up to two years. Patients stopped treatment if their tumors disappeared, the side effects became too toxic, their tumors continued to grow or they withdrew their consent to participate in the study.

About half of patients who took the drug reported side effects. The most common were fatigue, rash and diarrhea. Serious adverse events were seen in five patients. Most side effects occurred within the first six months of treatment.

Thirty-three patients who took the drug saw their tumors shrink by at least 50 percent on the medication. In a few cases, the masses disappeared completely.

Another seven patients had stable disease, meaning their cancer didn't get worse or better for at least six months.

The other 67 patients had mixed responses -- meaning some of their tumors grew while others shrank, or their tumors grew despite treatment.

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