- Pembrolizumab appears to be the standard treatment given after surgery
- Kidney cancer can be cured with surgery alone in 60 percent of cases.
- But if it comes back, only 15 percent of patients survive more than five years.
Kidney cancer patients have been given a lifeline by an immune-boosting drug that dramatically reduces the risk of the disease returning when it invariably becomes fatal.
The shot, pembrolizumab, looks set to become the standard treatment given to patients after surgery after survival rates soared in a trial.
Kidney cancer can be cured with surgery alone in 60 percent of cases; However, if he returns, the outlook is bleak. Only 15 percent of patients survive more than five years after a recurrence, and many die within two years.
Part of the problem is that kidney cancer does not respond to standard chemotherapy, the treatment typically given to kill cancer cells. This meant that doctors could only wait until the disease returned before they could offer medication, often without success.
Chesney Lewis (right), who was at the last trial, pictured with his wife Marilyn (left)
But now results from a major clinical trial suggest that injecting pembrolizumab every three weeks for a year increases patients’ chances of survival by 38 percent.
The drug works by helping the body’s immune system cells find and destroy tumors, and has already demonstrated success in treating melanoma, skin cancer, bladder and lung cancer, and lymphoma, a type of cancer. of the blood.
Pembrolizumab was first approved for use on the NHS for kidney cancer patients whose disease had returned in 2022 and, given alongside other targeted treatments called tyrosine kinase inhibitors that stop the growth and division of cancer cells, increased survival.
Professor Tom Powles, director of Barts Cancer Center in London, said: “Before we had pembrolizumab and other targeted therapies, kidney cancer patients often died within a year of recurrence. Then the time improved to between two and five years.
Pembrolizumab looks set to become the standard treatment given to patients after surgery after a trial saw survival rates increase.
“We now know that if we give pembrolizumab to people immediately after surgery and patients take it for a year, we can reduce the risk of death and cure more patients.”
Professor Powles predicts that up to 80 per cent of kidney cancer patients could be offered pembrolizumab after surgery as it has been shown to be highly effective.
Previously, one in ten patients receiving pembrolizumab stopped taking it due to serious side effects, which can include diabetes, shortness of breath, and thyroid problems. However, Professor Powles believes that more patients may now be willing to confront these problems, as doctors can reassure them that it is likely to help them live longer.
“We have shown that there is an increased risk of dying if pembrolizumab is not given before the cancer comes back,” he says. “Thus, patients will be much more inclined to receive treatment that increases their chances of living longer.”
Retiree Chesney Lewis was one of 1,000 people who took part in the latest pembrolizumab trial and believes he was in half of the patients given the drug instead of the placebo option. The 77-year-old, from Westcliffe-on-Sea in Essex, was diagnosed with kidney cancer in June 2018 during a routine scan for pancreatic cancer, which is hereditary.
A scan found he had stage four kidney cancer and he was transferred to the Royal Free Hospital in London, where he had his kidney removed the following week.
He says: ‘It was something that came out of nowhere. I felt very lucky that the cancer was detected. He surprised me, but I was relieved that the problem was fixed immediately.”
She was asked if she would join the study and received injections every three weeks for a year. Fortunately, she did not experience many side effects from her treatment.
He says: ‘At times I felt tired and a little lethargic, but it was nothing worrying. As far as I’m concerned, the whole experience was fantastic. Doctors saved my life by removing the kidney that had cancer in it, and any treatment I received afterward protected me from it coming back.
“It means I can be with my family, enjoy my retirement and not worry about cancer.”