Take Charge

Immunotherapy Key to Unlocking Lung Cancer Survival

April 17, 2018

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By Sara Bondell

When Marjorie Lovelace was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, doctors gave her six months to live.

But that wasn’t an option for her. She didn’t have any grandchildren yet and was determined to live long enough to meet them. She found Moffitt Cancer Center and "with nothing to lose" enrolled in a clinical trial investigating an immunotherapy combination therapy.

Immunotherapy helps the body fight off cancer by boosting the immune system and using engineered proteins that specifically target tumors.

Several studies presented this week at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting and published in the New England Journal of Medicine show immunotherapy greatly improves the odds of survival for lung cancer patients and that it should be used as early as possible after a diagnosis is made.

Moffitt thoracic oncologist Dr. Jhanelle Gray is an author and principal investigator for one of the studies. Her study showed immunotherapy drug Keytruda, given with chemotherapy, cut the risk of dying or having the cancer worsen in half after nearly one year.

"This is a pivotal trial that represents a significant progress for lung cancer research. Still, we must continuously strive for better," said Dr. Gray. "At Moffitt, we remain dedicated to making further advancements in lung cancer. We are in an exciting time but our work is not yet over."

The findings represent another step forward in immunotherapy, which has been making steady gains in recent years. Four immunotherapy drugs have been approved and researchers are continuing to look for ways to combine treatments to find the best fit for each patient.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the world. In the United States, more than 154,000 people will die from the disease this year.

It’s been five years since Lovelace was diagnosed. She’s long surpassed the six-month timeline and she’s achieved her goal: she’s now a grandmother of three.

"Immunotherapy saved my life," said Lovelace. "Thanks to everything Moffitt has done for me I got to live long enough to meet my grandchildren."