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Promising new treatment for lung cancer

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

Back in May of 1980, Neil Vicino was in a small boat on the water covering one of the greatest tragedies to hit Tampa Bay.

In the video, he describes the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, with the freighter responsible for the deadly accident in the background.

More than 30 years later, he found himself writing the last chapter of his life story.

"Being a former journalist, and journalist teacher, it's about seeking the truth and reporting it. And in this case, I had to seek the truth and report it for myself," he said.

Neil was a smoker. A cough kept getting worse, and doctors eventually discovered lung cancer.

"I asked him, please be brutally honest with me. What are my chances here? I give you maybe a 50-50 for a year and a half," he recalled.

Short on options, Neil found a clinical trial at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

"This is really a game changer," said oncologist and researcher Dr. Ben Creelan. Creelan is Neil's doctor and is testing an infusion made of two drugs, Nivolumab and Ipilimumab. (Brand name: Yervoy)

One is FDA-approved to treat other types of cancer, like melanoma. The second is an experimental anti-PD-1 drug to help shrink tumors.

Cancers are able to spread and grow by using a cloaking mechanism that hides it from the immune system. Four new drugs are now in development that target a protein, PDL-1, that is involved in helping some tumor cells hide.

These new drugs help unmask the cancer cells so the patient's own immune system can recognize, attack, and eliminate them.

The drug Neil is using is made by Bristol Myers Squib. But because this pathway is so promising, three other companies -- Genentech, Medimmune, and Merck -- also have drugs in the pipeline. They are also being used on other kinds of cancers.

Because they modify the immune system, the hope is that these drugs will continue working longer than targeted therapies do.

"There has been nothing else coming out in the past 20 to 25 years, not only reducing remissions in 1 in 4 patients, we're talking durable remissions here, remissions that last for years. And many patients who have been treated since 2008, their cancer hasn't come back yet. It might never come back."

The drug combo is not side-effect free, but unlike chemo, there's no fatigue no hair loss and no loss of appetite.

We asked Dr. Creelan, on a scale of 1 to 10, what is this going to do to cancer therapy?

"I think it's an 11," he smiled. "I think it's the most exciting thing in decades."

That's because Neil's had three infusions. Since starting the trial, his tumors shrunk 58 percent. He's feeling better and has more energy.

"I'm fortunate to be in the trial, because this is my best hope, my last hope...And so far it's proven to be that," he said.

Neil is grateful for his opportunity and hopes others can do the same.

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MORE INFORMATION:

Clinical Trials:

http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/results?term=PD-1&pg=2

More information:

A Phase II, Multicenter, Single-Arn Study of MPDL3280A in Patients with PD-L1-Positive Locally Advanced or Metastatic Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.

Not everyone responds to PD-1 pathway therapies. Early trial results show lung cancer patients had response rates on the order of 10% to 18%. Researchers are studying whether biomarkers - proteins such as PD-L1 on the surface of immune system or tumor cells - might indicate which patients will respond well to PD-1 therapies. That is why some trials (but not all) require a biopsy for testing before accepting the patient into the trial.

 

Editor's note: This name of one of the drugs in this story has been corrected. This version reflects the updated information.

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