Normally it’s a rule for me in these blogs to avoid straying away from the theme of prostate cancer. I want my efforts to have a practical application for those struggling with this condition. After all, prostate cancer is my specialty.
However, I am going to make a rare exception and break with my usual policy because of a stunning medical breakthrough in the treatment of advanced metastatic melanoma, a very deadly condition that until recently has been totally resistant to all forms of treatment. The only exception has been a newly FDA-approved immunotherapy called Yervoy.
A month ago I wrote about the high hopes we have for immune therapy for prostate cancer. I also wrote about a clinical trial we are conducting at Prostate Oncology Specialists that evaluates the combination of two different types of immune treatment, Provenge and Yervoy (see my blogs from March and April of this year for further details).
Immune therapy has tremendous potential for treating cancer since the immune system has unlimited potential to adapt to any cancer scenario. As more and more new types of immune therapy are being discovered, it’s only logical to conduct clinical trials that combine them to see if the simultaneous use of two immune treatments will further enhance the anticancer effect.
The report I am so excited about was just published in the New England Journal ofMedicine (NEJM). Doctors from Memorial Sloan Kettering and from Yale evaluated the combination of two types of immune therapy in advanced melanoma—Ipilimumab (Yervoy) and Nivolumab. In my previous blog I explained how Yervoy functions by taking the “brakes” off the immune system. Nivolumab works in a similar fashion, but works on a different set of brakes. (It turns out that the immune system has two separate brake systems).
While Yervoy by itself has already been shown to be effective for treating melanoma and is FDA approved for this purpose, Nivolumab is still going through clinical trials. Twelve weeks after the researchers administered Yervoy and Nivolumab simultaneously, one third of the patients had more than an 80% regression of all known tumors.
Furthermore, the side effects of giving the medicines in combination were no more severe than those encountered when either of the drugs was used by itself.
This report from the NEJM is very exciting because it provides proof for the concept that combining immune treatments will lead to enhanced anticancer effects. Moreover, another report of success using a combination of immune treatments was just released at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Two-hundred and forty-five men with melanoma were treated either with Yervoy alone or with a combination of Yervoy plus Leukine. The men treated with the combination of Yervoy plus Leukine lived 30% longer!
Leukine is an immune system stimulating medication that the FDA approved years ago for increasing white blood cell counts in patients treated with chemotherapy. However, Leukine is also known to have anticancer effects as well. For example, it is used as an integral component in Provenge. In addition, at the ASCO meeting in 2011, we published results from a trial we did in Marina del Rey in prostate cancer patients showing that Leukine plus low-dose cyclophosphamide (another immune-modulating drug) delays prostate cancer progression.
My dear friends and patients, I am amazed at how rapidly immunotherapy is progressing. Not only are new and exciting medications being discovered, innovative research evaluating combinations of these new powerful new medicines is leading to stunning cancer reversals in cases that as recently as a couple years ago were deemed totally hopeless.
Let me leave you with this final and encouraging thought. The immune system is very egalitarian. Great results achieved in one type of cancer will inevitably translate into effective treatments for other types of cancer as well, including, of course, prostate cancer. The achievement of unprecedented anticancer effects with combination immune therapy in a stubborn and deadly cancer like melanoma bodes very well for significant breakthroughs to occur for prostate cancer as well.