Two stories I want to highlight this week.
The first is some exciting news in cancer research. It’s been over four decades since President Nixon declared a “war on cancer” and while we have many treatments for it, of varying effectiveness, a “cure” is elusive. The biggest reason is that we’ve discovered that cancer is an incredibly complex panoply of conditions, some of which respond to certain therapies, some of which don’t. Last week, we heard about a therapy that’s having stunning results:
The 49-year-old woman had had three melanoma growths removed from her skin, but now the disease was spreading further. A several-centimeter-sized growth under her left breast went deep into her chest wall. Some of the tissue in the tumor was dying because of lack of blood flow.
Doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center offered her an experimental combination of two drugs: Opdivo and Yervoy, both manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb, both among a vanguard of new medicines that boost the immune system to attack tumors. Three weeks later she came back for her second dose.
“She didn’t say anything and when I examined her, I said, ‘Wait a minute!’” says Paul Chapman, the doctor who was treating her. “She said, ‘Yeah, it kind of just dissolved.’”
Where the tumor was before was, literally, a hole – a wound doctors hope will heal with time. Chapman took some fluid from it, and found there were no melanoma cells there. “I’ve been in immunotherapy for a long time, and we’ve talked and fantasized about reactions like this, but I’ve never seen anything this quickly,” he says. He skipped her next dose, and gave her two more before she stopped treatment because of the diarrhea the drug combination was causing. She has no detectable melanoma – amazing for a disease that has long been considered close to untreatable.
The drug is proving very effective, wiping about about 20% of the cancers its encounters. The results from an investigation into lung cancer were so effective that Bristol-Myers Squibb ended the trial early because it was unethical to withhold the drug from placebo patients.
This isn’t a “cure” but it is very promising. There are concerns, because the drug is very expensive ($250,000 per year of treatment). As McArdle points out, the new emphasis on cost effectiveness may limit access to the drug. But even if it only goes to the super rich for now, it’s blazing a path that other less expensive drugs might follow.
And people wonder where the money for prescription drugs goes.
In other news, this week marked the 25th birthday of the Hubble Space Telescope, which they celebrate with this spectacular image of Westerlund 2 (Click to see the full image):