Doctors said Janet Thompson had six to eight months to live. Diagnosed with stage IV squamous non-small cell lung cancer, Thomas suffered from a tumor in her right lung that continued to grow despite surgery, two rounds of chemo, and radiation.
Running out of options, Thompson enrolled in a trial at Providence Portland Medical Center. The trial was for Opdivo, a drug recently approved by Bristol-Meyers Squibb. The trial enrolled patients with incurable advanced squamous non-small cell lung cancer. It is estimated that around 40,000 people will get that diagnosis this year in the U.S.
The treatment being tested uses antibodies to fight cancer. The patient receives an antibody and because antibodies occur naturally in the body, they don’t destroy beneficial cells while killing the diseased cells. Opdivo works by helping our immune system do its natural job of attacking tumor cells.
Thompson, a 64-year-old resident of Milwaukie, is thriving.
“I’m doing great,” Thompson said. “I think it’s wonderful.”
Thompson’s tumor has shrunk due to the twice-monthly injections of the new medicine. Chemotherapy kills cancer cells directly but Opdivo strengthens the immune system which tries to remove the defenses of the cells that fight back against the antibodies.
By attacking the protein cancer cells use to hide from the immune system, Opdivo exposes the diseased cells letting the immune system work.
“Our body’s defense system is infinitely more complicated and elegant, if you will, in being able to attack something than a single drug,” said Dr. Rachel Sanborn, oncologist at Providence Cancer Center.
“This is the first time an immunotherapy drug has been approved for lung cancer,” Sanborn said. “This is a totally new arena. It’s very exciting for that. It’s the beginning point, not the end point.”
Sanborn conducted the trial at Providence as part of the nationwide study of 117 patients. All the patients saw their tumors grow after multiple rounds of chemo. The drug shrunk the tumors of 15 percent of the patients while chemotherapy typically helps about 10 percent of patients.
In another trial, Opdivo was shown to extend the lives of patients at least three months more than chemo did.
“That shows you why we need better treatment,” Sanborn said.
Another notable aspect of the drug is the fact that unlike chemo, Opdivo causes relatively few side effects.
Thompson, the sole successful case among the three patients enrolled in the Providence trial, experienced no side effects. After retiring in August, Thompson began traveling, quilting, reading, and spending more time with her children and grandchildren.
“I’ve been very, very lucky,” she said.
The only price for her is to visit the Cancer Center in Northeast Portland to receive doses of the drug every other week.
“However long it takes, I don’t care,” she said. “When you can keep the lifestyle you’ve had, it’s well worth that hour, hour and a half.”
Opdivo is currently offered only to patients who have previously undergone chemotherapy, but another study is currently underway to determine whether it could be used as an initial treatment after diagnosis.
Sanborn believes the drug may also work against other tumors.
“That’s why there’s a lot of excitement out there,” Sanborn said. “This has the potential to help thousands of people in the United States. That’s really significant.”