The sobering truth about cancer immunotherapy

Imagine being able to offer hope to people with cancers that were once thought untreatable. Checkpoint immune drugs like pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo) are heralding this new era in cancer treatment. Some people taking these drugs can see their cancer completely disappear; there’s nothing left to see on their x-rays.

We rightly celebrate these successes, but must face the sobering truth that only a minority of people experience these dramatic benefits. Decades of research have helped us reach this point. Now scientists and doctors from Australia and around the world are working furiously to learn more about how these immune treatments work or fail.

Who it works for now

Nivolumab and pembrolizumab are checkpoint immunotherapy antibodies. They work by blocking barriers (or “checkpoints”) created by cancer cells to protect against attack from the immune system. Remove the barrier and the immune system can destroy the cancer.

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The most success so far for these drugs is with melanoma, which has long been known to respond to immunotherapy. In Australia, single or combination checkpoint immunotherapy substantially helps about half of people with melanoma, and will soon be available for people with kidney and lung cancers.