The first immunotherapy drug for any kind of lung cancer has been approved by the Federal Drug Administration, thanks in part to Providence Cancer Center.

The center participated in a trial testing the medication, called Opdivo (nivolumab) to treat patients with advanced (metastatic) squamous non-small cell lung cancer, with progression on or after platinum-based chemotherapy, according to a news release from the FDA.

Opdivo is an antibody targeted against a protein called PD-1, said Dr. Rachel Sanborn, who led the clinical trial at Providence Cancer Center, where she is an oncologist and researcher.

“This is one of the proteins cancer can make to try and hide from the immune system,” she said.

The medication is designed to help the immune system find and fight cancer in the body.

“It helps with unmasking the cancer and it helps by revving up the immune system,” she said.

The FDA approval means doctors have another option for patients dealing with squamous non-small cell lung cancer — a type of cancer that hasn’t seen many treatment breakthroughs, Sanborn said.

“To be able to have another option, something that has made such a significant difference is really exciting and quite promising,” she said.

Non-small cell is the most common type of lung cancer, and of that, 30 percent are squamous cell, Sanborn said.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., with an estimated 224,210 new diagnoses and 159,260 deaths in 2014, according to the release. The cancer that was the focus of the study affects seven out of eight lung cancer patients, occurring when cancer forms in the cells of the lung.

“There are thousands and thousands of people in the U.S. and world wide for whom this will have a significant impact,” Sanborn said.

Providence Cancer Center participated in one of two studies that helped support FDA approval. Of 117 participants in a study looking at response rate, 15 percent of participants experienced partial or complete shrinkage of the tumor. A local woman who participated in the trial has seen long-term improvement.

Another study looking at the efficacy of Opdivo found participants who took the drug lived on average three months longer that those who received docetaxel, a chemotherapy drug, said the release.

“It’s the first step, it’s really exciting,” Sanborn said. “There is a lot more work to be done but it’s definitely something that will have an impact for survival and quality of life for people.”

Contributing Reporter
Portland Business Journal
Mar 9, 2015