Enlisting immune system helps fight lung cancer, study finds

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John Ryan of Aldie, Virginia, ,was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer two years ago. Standard cancer medicine left him exhausted and prone to infections and did little to shrink the tumor. In October 2013, he joined an immunotherapy study and was assigned to get Opdivo. Three months later, his tumor had been reduced by 65 percent and he felt well enough to help his son cut down a large tree for firewood. AP photo

John Ryan of Aldie, Virginia, ,was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer two years ago. Standard cancer medicine left him exhausted and prone to infections and did little to shrink the tumor. In October 2013, he joined an immunotherapy study and started taking Opdivo. Three months later, his tumor had been reduced by 65 percent. “I’m out there whistling with the birds and feeling pretty good about life,” said Ryan, who is 70. AP photo

For the first time, a major study has shown that a new type of drug targeting the body’s disease-fighting immune system might improve survival for the most common form of lung cancer.

It worked better than chemotherapy for patients with a form of non-small cell lung cancer diagnosed in more than 120,000 people nationwide each year.

Median survival was just over 12 months for Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo, which blocks a protein that prevents the immune system from attacking cancer cells, according to research presented in Chicago at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s yearly conference. That was versus about nine months for patients getting the chemotherapy drug docetaxel.

That difference might not seem like much, but long-term survival chances are generally slim for these patients.

“This is a huge step forward for treatment,” said senior study author Dr. Julie Brahmer of Johns Hopkins University. “But we have a long way to go to be able to personalize this type of therapy for all lung cancer patients.”

Dr. Julie Brahmer

With these newer treatments, drugs are used to help the immune system recognize and attack cancer. This approach already has transformed treatment of melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Studies presented at the Chicago conference suggest these “immune therapies” also can help fight more common cancers — including those of the lung, liver, colon and head and neck.

Opdivo.jpeg

Opdivo was approved in March for a less common form of lung cancer and late last year for melanoma. Two other immunotherapies — Keytruda and Yervoy — also are approved for melanoma.

“These drugs are among the most promising drugs that have come along” in years, said Dr. Richard Schilsky, chief medical officer for the oncology society and former director of the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Often diagnosed at an advanced state, lung cancer is the nation’s No. 1 cancer killer — nearly 160,000 people will die of the disease this year, the American Cancer Society estimates.

Dr. Richard Schilsky

New effort to match drugs to genes, not type of cancer

The federal government is launching a very different kind of cancer study. It will assign patients drugs based on genes, rather than type of cancer.

The National Cancer Institute’s NCI-MATCH trial — a massive experiment in precision medicine, at more than 2,400 sites nationwide — begins in July, when about 3,000 patients will have their tumor genes sequenced to see which mutations or pathways fuel their disease.

About 1,000 patients whose tumor characteristics most closely match one of the 20 or so gene-targeting drugs offered in the study will be put into groups of about 30 patients to get that drug.

“You might end up with 30 people, all with different kinds of cancer, getting the same drug,” said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, which has no role in the study but praised the effort.

Details of the study were revealed this past week at an American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago.

Those eligible for the study will be adults with tumors or lymphomas worsened or spread despite at least one standard treatment. Gene testing and drugs will be free.

Interested patients should start by talking with their doctors. They and physicians also can call theNCI’s Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) for help in English and Spanish.

Kim Kardashian did it, but no proof found that eating placenta aids health

Celebrities like Kim Kardashian blogging about eating the placenta after giving birth for supposed health benefits have prompted a growing number of other new mothers to also try it.

But there’s no scientific evidence it helps fight postpartum depression, eases pain or otherwise improves physical or mental health, nor that it doesn’t carry health risks, according to a new Northwestern University review of 10 studies on the practice.

Kim Kardashian, who recently revealed that she and husband Kanye West are expecting their second child, helped fuel a trend by blogging about eating the placenta after giving birth to her first child, North West two years ago. / Getty Images

Most mammals eat the placenta — which during pregnancy protects the developing fetus —after giving birth. But the practice, called placentophagy, was first documented among women only in the 1970s, according to the study. Celebrities have boosted its popularity.

“The popularity has spiked in the last few years,” said Dr. Crystal Clark, a psychiatrist specializing in reproduction-related mood disorders at Northwestern’s Asher Center for the Study and Treatment of Depressive Disorders,

But Clark, one of the authors of the study reported last week in the journal Archives of Women’s Mental Health, also said: “Our sense is that people aren’t making this decision based on science or talking with physicians. Some women are making this based on media reports, blogs and websites.”

“Women really don’t know what they are ingesting,” said Cynthia Coyle, a Northwestern psychologist who was lead author of the study.

Contributing: AP, Sun-Times staff reports

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