* New data on BMS drug show some patients survive 10 years
* Immunotherapy drugs arm immune system to fight tumours
* In some patients, disease held in check in "clinical cure"
By Kate Kelland
AMSTERDAM, Sept 27 A new generation of drugs
designed to trigger the immune system to fight cancer is
offering the prospect of a "clinical cure" for some melanoma
skin cancer patients who until a few years ago were more likely
to be facing a swift death.
Cancer specialists gathering for a European conference at
the weekend said the so-called immunotherapy drugs, a class led
by Bristol-Myers Squibb's Yervoy, or ipilimumab, have
transformed an area of oncology in which until recently doctors
barely had time to get to know their patients.
Stephen Hodi, assistant professor of medicine at the
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the United States, said he was
cautious about using the term cure, but described recent
advances as a "paradigm shift".
At the least, he said, the success of this new generation of
medicines means some melanoma patients would now be living with
a chronic disease, rather than facing imminent death.
"This is a really amazing time ... A few years ago we could
never have imagined using the C-word, cure, in melanoma," he
said. "But we are headed that way."
"Ipilimumab opened a door, and now the field is moving
extremely fast," he told Reuters at the European Cancer Congress
(ECC) in Amsterdam.
Yervoy, approved by regulators in 2011, was hailed as a
breakthrough treatment in melanoma after it became the first
drug ever to extend survival in patients with advanced forms of
the melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
A type of drug known as a human monoclonal antibody, it
activates the body's immune system to fight the cancer by
targeting a protein receptor called Cytotoxic T-Lymphocyte
Antigen 4, or CTLA-4.
On average, Yervoy added only about four months of life in
pivotal trials, but around 20 percent of patients had an
impressively durable response to the drug.
Hodi presented new data at the ECC from the largest and
longest study of overall survival for patients treated with
Yervoy which showed some of them can survive for up to 10 years.
Alexander Eggermont of the Institut Gustave Roussy
Comprehensive Cancer Center in France, who specialises in the
treatment of melanoma, said Hodi's results suggested some
patients could be effectively cured of their cancer - a concept
known as a "clinical cure" - with the drug helping the immune to
keep the disease in check.
"Patients apparently can keep residual tumours under control
for a long time when the immune system is properly 'reset', and
the concept of 'clinical cures' becomes a reality," he said in a
statement to the conference.
And with a next generation of immunotherapy drugs - designed
to disable proteins called PD1 and PDL1 that prevent the immune
system from spotting and attacking cancer cells - already being
tested alone and in combination with Yervoy, there is
"tremendous promise" in the treatment of melanoma, said Hodi.
Bristol-Myers Squibb is conducting late stage trials of its
next-generation drug, nivolumab, in advanced melanoma, while
rival U.S. drugmaker Merck is developing a competitor,
lambrolizumab, which in early-stage trials helped shrink tumours
in 38 percent of advanced melanoma patients.
Swiss drugmaker Roche's also has a leading
contender - MPDL3280A - in this class.
"These (Yervoy) survival results could even double or triple
with anti-PD1/PDL1 monoclonal antibodies, and metastatic
melanoma could become a curable disease for perhaps more than 50
percent of patients over the coming five to 10 years," Eggermont