Aug 19th 2021

New Immunotherapy Options Give Cancer Patients Hope

Immunotherapy is a treatment regimen that uses medication derived from living cells or organisms to help your immune system more effectively fight cancer.

Immunotherapy has been around a lot longer than you might guess. For example, way back in 1990 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved immunotherapy with a live, weakened form of bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) bacteria as treatment for bladder cancer.

More than 30 years later, the number of options for immunotherapy has exploded, and people with many different types of cancer may be able to choose immunotherapy. In fact, the FDA has approved more than 50 immunotherapies to treat cancer—with more on the way.

Why Choose Immunotherapy?

Several types of immunotherapy exist:

  • Monoclonal antibodies
  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors
  • T-cell transfer therapy
  • Immune system modulators
  • Cancer treatment vaccines

Unlike chemotherapy drugs, which are designed to directly kill off cancer cells, immunotherapy aims to improve the immune system's ability to fight off cancer, and to make it harder for cancer cells to evade the immune system by hiding.

Immunotherapy also can offer a benefit that chemotherapy can't: It may provide long-lasting protection against cancer, well beyond the duration of treatment. That's because when immunotherapy is successful, it creates an “immune memory." The immune system remembers and recognizes cancer cells that otherwise could have run rampant in the future.

New Oncology Drugs

Last year saw the approval of 47 new oncology drugs by the FDA. This was great news for oncology patients and their healthcare providers, because these new drugs offer new treatment options.

One of the oncology drugs approved in 2020 was an immunotherapy agent called Blenrep (Belantamab Mafodotin-blmf), which is a B-cell maturation antigen (BCMA)-directed antibody and microtubule inhibitor conjugate. It's used to treat multiple myeloma in patients who've undergone multiple other types of treatment but have seen their cancer return. According to the Journal of Clinical Pathways, it's the first approved anti-BCMA therapy.

In addition to new FDA-approved oncology drugs, advances in immunotherapy have enabled new uses of existing oncology drugs to benefit patients. For example, the FDA granted more approvals to Opdivo® (nivolumab), which is a checkpoint inhibitor that's used to treat a number of different kinds of cancer, including bladder, colorectal, esophageal, lymphoma, and mesothelioma. The new approvals mean that this drug can now be used with patients who have certain kinds of metastatic or recurrent non-small cell lung cancer, unresectable malignant pleural mesothelioma, or hepatocellular carcinoma that was already treated with sorafenib.

Another example is Mylotarg™ (gemtuzumab ozogamicin), an antibody-drug conjugate that received FDA approval expansion. It was originally approved in 2000 to treat patients over 60 with CD33-positive acute myeloid leukemia who had experienced their first relapse. In 2017, its approval was expanded to adults and children 2 years and older with relapsed or refractory CD33-positive AML. Now Mylotarg™ can also be used to treat newly diagnosed CD33-positive acute myeloid leukemia in pediatric patients who are at least 1 month old.

New combinations of existing drugs can also provide new options—and hope—for people who are battling cancer. These include immunotherapy drugs offered in combination with other types of drugs. For example, patients fighting relapsed or refractory multiple myeloma who have already received one to three lines of treatment now might have the option of trying Darzalex® (daratumumab), which is a targeted antibody, and Kyprolis® (carfilzomib) together with dexamethasone.

All of these developments, including the approval of new oncology drugs, combinations of immunotherapy drugs with other drugs, and advances in gene therapy, have brought new hope to many people fighting cancer.  As a recent commentary in the journal Nature Communications noted, new therapies that have arrived recently are not only life-changing for the patients who directly benefit, but they also “lay a foundation on which treatments for many other conditions can be developed."

These immunotherapy options may be the latest, but they certainly won't be the last, to emerge and receive FDA approval. It is likely that other oncology drugs in the pipeline will make their debut in the not-so-distant future. In the meantime, you can learn more about immunotherapies and other new cancer treatments from an EviCore webinar available here.