Relatively new immunotherapy drug class credited with speeding recovery of 91-year-old statesman
According to the Times of Israel, an Israeli-tested drug that fights cancer “through sophisticated manipulations of the body’s natural immune system” was key in helping rid President Jimmy Carter of life-threatening tumors that developed after he was diagnosed with melanoma earlier this year.
“For today, the news cannot be better,” said the deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society in the Times piece. “Circumstances may change over time or he may be in a situation where it does not recur for many years or at all.”
“I will continue to receive regular 3-week immunotherapy treatments of pembrolizumab,” the former president said in a press conference. That drug goes by the name Keytruda commercially.
“Melanoma specialists credit the drug for improving treatment of the disease without the side effects of traditional chemotherapy drugs that can cause hair loss and other symptoms,” a melanoma specialist at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center who is not involved with Carter’s treatment told the paper.
According to the Times of Israel and its source, the drug has shown promise also as a “long-lasting” treatment, but doctors continue to learn more as it is used outside of clinical trials.
It’s also worth noting that many adverse effects of pharmaceuticals in general are only discovered after clinical trial, approval by the Food & Drug Administration (in the U.S.), and months or years of use by patient populations.
Keytruda has been available for consumption long enough that the melanoma specialist interviewed by the Times is confident enough to include it when he says, “So many cancer treatments can be effective in the short-term, causing tumors to shrink. Immune therapy, in at least a subset of patients, has truly long-lasting responses.”
The Jerusalem-based daily says Keytruda was researched in Israel by Professor Jacob Schachter of the Ella Institute for Melanoma Treatment and Research at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, and is “part of a promising new class of drugs called immunotherapies, which harness the body’s immune system to help fight cancer.”
The drug, manufactured by the U.S. pharmaceutical conglomerate Merck, works “by blocking a protein found in certain tumors called PD-1, which inhibits the body’s natural response to cancer cells,” according to the Times.
In August 2015, Carter, 91, announced that he had been diagnosed with melanoma and had begun treatment, including surgery to remove part of his liver, targeted radiation therapy, and doses of a recently approved drug to help his immune system seek out any new cancer cells.
A University of Massachusetts melanoma expert, also not involved in the president’s treatment, told the paper, “There have been instances of relapse two to three years in while using immunotherapy treatment.” Indeed, doctors caution that they are still learning about the long-term effect of Keytruda and similar drugs, which have only received approval for wide patient use in the last five years.
But the Massachusetts doctor added, “You’d say there is a good reason to be quite optimistic. At President Carter’s age, it’s very likely he’s going to enjoy an excellent quality of life.”