Patients in battle with deadly asbestos lung cancer are living longer, healthier lives thanks to breakthrough immune-boosting drug
Results from a trial show the drug nivolumab can help keep the aggressive disease mesothelioma at bay for months or even years. For patients with the disease, any extra time can be priceless as only seven percent of sufferers live longer than five years.
Professor Gareth Griffiths, the Director of Clinical Trials at the University of Southampton, said: ‘Mesothelioma is incredibly hard to treat.
‘Most patients get chemotherapy, but for the majority, this will eventually become ineffective. When the cancer returns there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
‘For the first time, we have shown there’s an effective next step after chemo.’
More than 2,600 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year in the UK. Most cases are diagnosed in those aged 60 to 80. The scarring caused by asbestos fibres in the lining of the lungs is the prime location for cancerous mesothelioma cells to form. Asbestos was withdrawn from use in the UK in 1999, but cases of mesothelioma have increased by 61 percent since the early 1990s.
About the drug…
The drug has been used to treat a variety of cancers since it was approved in 2015. These include melanoma, non-small-cell lung cancer and lymphoma. It works by harnessing the body’s immune system, in contrast to chemotherapy which directly attacks the cancer cells.
One of the reasons mesothelioma is so difficult to treat is because the body’s immune system doesn’t normally recognise the cancer. Nivolumab helps immune cells called T-cells attack mesothelioma. While it cannot completely eradicate the disease, it can stop it from spreading, giving patients extra months – and in some cases extra years – to live. According to Prof Griffiths, around 40 per cent of patients who were started on nivolumab in 2017 are still alive.
Carpenter David Smith, 61, was diagnosed with mesothelioma four years ago and was told he had between 12 and 18 months left to live.
‘It came out of the blue and was a real shock,’ said David, who went on to have chemotherapy.
‘That got me through the rest of that year, but things started to worsen again. That’s when I was told the prognosis had changed and I had between three and six months. It was a big shock.’
As a last resort, David, who lives in Aldingbourne, near Chichester in West Sussex, was placed on the nivolumab trial in 2018. While David doesn’t know whether he was given the placebo or nivolumab, it is almost certain that he was given the real thing because scans showed his tumour had shrunk after just 12 weeks.
He finished the trial in December 2019 and says his condition stabilised for a while, adding: ‘I had a whole year where things had improved.’ Sadly, David’s tumour has begun growing again and he will need more chemotherapy, but he says the trial was a ‘lifeline’.
Prof Griffiths said: ‘We’ve created very good evidence that this is a good standard of care.
‘The hope is it could benefit thousands of patients.’