The People's Perspective on Medicine

Nivolumab Offers Benefit for Hard-to-Treat Lung Cancer

People with non-small-cell lung cancer that didn't respond to chemo have a much better chance of survival if they are given the immunotherapy nivolumab.

Immunotherapy is a relatively recent addition to the options for treating various cancers. One of these compounds, nivolumab, works by blocking a protein that keeps immune cells from destroying cancer cells. Such medicines are known as checkpoint inhibitors. Nivolumab belongs to the ominous-sounding category, programmed death-1 inhibitors.

Does Nivolumab Improve Survival?

Oncologists report that patients with hard-to-treat lung cancer got significant benefit from nivolumab treatment (World Conference on Lung Cancer, Barcelona, Sep. 10, 2019). The study included 854 people. These individuals has non-small-cell lung cancer that had failed to respond to first-line platinum chemotherapy.

After five years, 13.4 percent of those who received the drug were still alive, compared to 2.6 percent of those treated with the standard chemotherapy drug docetaxel. The researchers point out that this makes the nivolumab survival rate five times better than chemo for this type of cancer.

Side Effects of Immunotherapy:

Because nivolumab works by affecting the immune system, people on this medication may experience infections, rash and itching, significant fatigue, diarrhea or other more serious side effects. If the immune system attacks the body, people taking this drug may suffer immune-mediated pneumonitis, colitis or hepatitis. People sometimes develop disorders of the thyroid or adrenal glands that are also difficult to treat. Despite this the prospect of improving survival chances five-fold may outweigh the risk of such reactions.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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