"Lung cancer is the greatest cause of cancer death worldwide and for most patients with newly diagnosed advanced NSCLC, chemotherapy has always been the standard", Matthew Hellmann, M.D., assistant attending at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said in a press release.
Non-squamous lung cancer patients make up about 80% of all the non-small cell lung cancers, so that amounts to over 150,000 patients in the United States each year, said Gomez, who was not involved in the new study.
Researchers have found the drug Keytruda, when given along with standard chemotherapy, cut the risk of dying from the disease in half compared with chemo alone.
Immune-boosting drugs given in conjunction with chemotherapy significantly extended life for people with the most common type of lung cancer, according to clinical trials. In fact, it's approved as a go-to a treatment in combination with chemotherapy for advanced cancer patients who haven't taken any other medicines.
But the story of competition in the lung cancer space ultimately shines a light on the disease's perniciousness, and how important any drug that can help patients live longer is to doctors and patients. However, that figure is far better than the success rate of chemotherapy against lung cancer.
Recalling a patient with advanced lung cancer whose tumor disappeared and has not grown back after finishing treatment 24 months ago, Gomez said, "I'm now becoming much more optimistic that if we can really find a way to ideal this treatment and to really figure out who are the patients who do the best and why that we may be able to do something like get rid of lung cancer for at least some patients".
Still, the drug has side effects - notably, about 5 percent of patients in the immunotherapy group experienced acute kidney problems, compared with 0.5 percent of patients in the control group.
"We don't know how long their survival is going to be and we're excited about that", said Gandhi.
They found the strategy was not only safe, but that 45pc of the patients responded so well there was little evidence of the cancer remaining upon follow-up examinations.
Gomez believes it could be as high as double chemotherapy alone, "which would be very impressive", he said.
The study participants were divided into two groups: one group received only the chemotherapy drug, while the other was administered an additional 200 mg of pembrolizumab every three weeks, for the duration of four treatment cycles.