Breaking News: FDA Approves New Mesothelioma Treatment

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a doctor in a military uniform holds up a syringe

On October 2, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a promising new mesothelioma treatment. The treatment combines the immunotherapy drugs Opdivo® and Yervoy®. This is the first approval of its kind in nearly two decades. Opdivo and Yervoy may offer new hope to victims of mesothelioma – including many U.S. veterans.

First FDA Approval in 16 Years for Mesothelioma

After a groundbreaking study, the FDA approved a new treatment option for malignant pleural mesothelioma. It is the first drug therapy approved for mesothelioma in 16 years.

The announcement comes after a recent clinical trial that studied the effects of treating mesothelioma patients with a combination of the immunotherapy drugs Opdivo (generic name nivolumab) and Yervoy (generic name ipilimumab).

The results of the study showed an improvement in overall survival rate for mesothelioma patients.

“This is exciting news, instilling hope for patients with this devastating disease and for the health care providers who care for them.”

– Dr. Anne S. Tsao, Director of the Mesothelioma Program at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

The last time a new mesothelioma treatment was considered a “breakthrough” was in 2004. That was the year the FDA approved two chemotherapy drugs – pemetrexed and cisplatin – for use in treating mesothelioma.

Combination immunotherapy may become the new standard of frontline treatment for patients with pleural mesothelioma who cannot have surgery to remove their cancer.

This is particularly exciting news for patients — especially veterans with mesothelioma, who make up 33% of all cases diagnosed in the United States.

What Is Immunotherapy?

Mesothelioma immunotherapy uses parts of your immune system to fight this deadly cancer.

This is done in two ways:

  1. Boosting your immune system’s natural defenses to work harder (or smarter) to find and attack cancer cells that cause mesothelioma
  2. Using lab-created substances to boost your immune system’s natural ability to destroy mesothelioma cells

Immunotherapy has become important over the last few decades in treating some cancer types, with mesothelioma being the latest. Other new mesothelioma treatments involving immunotherapy are being studied and approved at a rapid pace.

How Is Immunotherapy Different from Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that can kill cancer by attacking the rapidly dividing cells that cause tumors. Immunotherapy drugs are used to improve the way the natural immune system responds, helping it to seek and destroy cancer cells.

The side effects of the two treatments for mesothelioma can vary. Mesothelioma chemotherapy side effects range from nausea to hair loss as the treatment also kills non-cancerous cells.

Immunotherapy side effects like lung inflammation or skin rashes are usually caused as the body’s natural immune system changes. They can range from mild to potentially life-threatening in some situations.

Immunotherapy Treatment for Mesothelioma

Opdivo and Yervoy have been available to cancer patients for some time. However, immunotherapy treatment for mesothelioma was not studied until more recently.

Did you know

It is believed that in this new mesothelioma treatment, Opdivo and Yervoy may help patients’ immune systems more than either of the drugs used alone.

Doctors believe that the individual benefits of Opdivo and Yervoy play off one another. Yervoy helps the body create more T cells (which find foreign particles in the immune system) and Opdivo helps activate the T cells so they can find cancer cells that are hiding.

Immunotherapy and Mesothelioma Survival

Typically, when cancer patients are diagnosed in advanced stages, mesothelioma survival rates are grim – but immunotherapy may help patients live longer.

The CheckMate-743 clinical trial sponsored by Bristol Myers Squibb studied the effects of immunotherapy treatment on mesothelioma patients. Patients were treated for two years with Opdivo every two weeks and Yervoy every six weeks. Other patients were treated with just chemotherapy.

At the 2-year mark of the study, 41% of patients treated with Opdivo and Yervoy were still living, while only 27% of patients treated with a chemotherapy regimen were.

“The approval of nivolumab [Opdivo] plus ipilimumab [Yervoy] provides a new treatment that has demonstrated an improvement in overall survival for patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma.”

— Dr. Richard Pazdur, Director of the FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence

The groundbreaking announcement may offer new hope to both veterans and non-veterans with mesothelioma, as well as their loved ones.

If you or someone you love has mesothelioma, it’s crucial to get the latest and best information available. Our Free Veterans Packet can tell you more about treatments for mesothelioma and how to access them.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

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