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Advanced Melanoma Patients Lived Longer With This Pair Of Immunotherapy Drugs

Update Date: Apr 20, 2016 06:36 AM EDT

A study in the United Kingdom showed that with a pair of immunotherapy drugs, 20 percent of patients with advanced melanoma got cured and showed no signs of tumors in their body after the treatment.

Sixty-nine percent of 142 patients in a trial were still alive two years after taking the combination of ipilimumab and nivolumab, the first survival data showed. The UK doctors who lead the trial said that the results were very encouraging, BBC reported.

A data from another melanoma study using on Merck's immunotherapy pembrolizumab showed an increased in survival as well. Both sets of drugs works by cutting the brakes of the immune system.

As published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, an early stage trial result showed one-third of patients survived for a year without signs of tumor growing.

The immune system is the most effective defense against infection. Built in "brakes" however, stop it from attacking the body's tissue. Cancer, which is composed of a corrupted version of healthy tissue, takes advantage of those brakes to evade the attacks. Nivolumab and ipilimumab are designed to stop those brakes.

Pembrolizumab and the combination of ipilimumab and nivolumab have become the standard treatment for melanoma; however, the combination is believed to be more effective.

A trial has made where only ipilimumab was given to the patients. It resulted in 53 percent survival rates after two years and patients' tumors had not disappeared. The equivalent figures for the combination therapy showed 69 and 22 percent.

"It will be important in terms of working out the benefit of these treatments in the longer term, but nevertheless, it's a relatively small study still," Dr James Larkin said.

More than 50 percent of the patients, however, suffered severe to life-threatening side effects so they have to stop their treatment.

The combination therapy drug produces toxic side effects when mixed, according to Suzanne Topalian, a professor of surgery and oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore.

"There may be better ways to give the combination, and that is now in clinical testing," she explained.

Nivolumab has side effects which include inflammation in normal tissue in other organs. It is caused by the drug's effect on the immune system of the patient. But the side effects can be treated aggressively after an early diagnosis, as reported by Medical Xpress.

"We are now at a point where these drugs are quite safe. The risk-to-benefit balance appears to be favorable," Topalian said.

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