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New Drugs Rally Immune System to Fight Cancer

For many years, cancer researchers have questioned why the immune system doesn’t react to cancer cells as invaders and attack them. A deepening understanding of genetic drivers of disease reveals that the cancerous tumors take over the brake control on the immune system.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal underscores the advances being made in new drugs that release the brake and allow the immune system to fight various forms of cancer, including cancers associated with asbestos exposure.

For Tom Stutz, a 72-year-old retired lawyer in California, taking each breath was a struggle and even doing simple tasks such as eating a meal required help as cancer advanced in his lungs and liver.  In April, Stutz, who was confined to a wheelchair, began taking an experimental drug known as MK-3475 that reactivated his immune system to fight cancer. Today, Mr. Stutz is walking 3.5 miles a day, has parked his wheelchair, and reports feeling terrific, according to The Wall Street Journal article about innovative medical treatments. Doctors informed Mr. Stutz in the fall that his tumors had shrunk by 65 percent.

MK-3475, which has not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is under development by Merck & Co. It is among a class of drugs known as PD-1 inhibitors. The drugs disrupt the ability of cancer to hijack the immune system and boosts the immune response to certain cancers. In testing the drug on patients with metastatic melanoma, researchers reported in November that about 9 percent of patients who took the drug has no observable cancer after 12 weeks while half of the study participants had tumor shrinkage.

Merck is currently recruiting cancer patients to participate in clinical trials to study the safety and tolerability of the drug to treat several forms of cancer including non-small cell lung cancer, one of the cancers associated with asbestos exposure. You can find contact information about the clinical trial here.

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