A newly approved drug for the leading form of the number one cancer killer, lung cancer, does improve patient survival, a new study confirms.
The immunotherapy drug Tecentriq (atezolizumab) was approved earlier this year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat patients with newly diagnosed non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC), which comprise up to 85% of all lung tumors.
Tecentriq targets a protein known as PD-L1 that lies on the surface of tumor cells. Normally, this protein signals the body’s immune system T cells not to attack. However, by targeting PD-L1, Tecentriq unleashes the body’s natural T cells to target and destroy these cancer cells, researchers at Yale Cancer Center explained.
Tecentriq “has already shown excellent activity in patients who progress on frontline chemotherapy, but this study confirmed that the drug is active in selected patients who have not yet received any treatment for lung cancer,” said medical oncologist Dr. Nagashree Seetharamu, who treats lung cancer patients but wasn’t involved in the new study. She practices at Northwell Health Cancer Institute in Lake Success, N.Y.
The new study was funded by Tecentriq’s maker, Genentech, and the results were published Sept. 30 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The study included 554 patients with stage 4 metastatic NSCLC tumors. All patients had tumors lacking mutations in the EGFR or ALK genes: As the researchers explained in a Yale news release, tumors with those mutations are better treated with other drugs.
Among 205 patients whose tumors had high cellular expression of PD-L1, the median overall survival was 20 months for those who received Tecentriq versus 13 months for those who received standard platinum-based chemotherapy.
Median progression-free survival — the time from treatment to the disease beginning to worsen — was eight months for patients who received Tecentriq versus five months for those on standard chemotherapy, the researchers found.
“These are exciting results that could be life-changing for many patients,” said study lead author Dr. Roy Herbst. He is chief of medical oncology at the Yale Cancer Center as well as the Smilow Cancer Hospital.
“Lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide, with more than 1.5 million patients diagnosed each year. Half of patients are diagnosed with metastatic disease, and they could be a candidate for this drug,” Herbst said in the news release.