Merck Drug Found To Improve Survival Rate for Aggressive Brain Cancer Patients

It was not that long ago that US Senator John McCain died from an aggressive form of brain cancer, but we are already learning so much more about the condition. In fact, patients who are currently suffering from the same form of brain cancer can now expect their survival rate to nearly double with a new treatment. 

The new treatment is the immunotherapy drug Keytruda from Merck & Co’s blockbuster and the benefit seems to arise when the drug is administered before surgery to remove a tumor. 

According to researchers with the University of California, Los Angeles, this aggressive form of brain cancer is known as recurrent glioblastoma.  And the data shows that patients diagnosed with this condition who are treated with Keytruda before the surgical removal of a brain tumor could survive, on average, 417 days. This is nearly double the average historical survival rate for recurrent glioblastoma which only has an initial survival rate of about 10 percent (and life expectancy of 228 days). 

And this type of treatment is very important because glioblastoma powerfully suppresses the entire human immune system, and it does this not only at the site of the cancer but it also spreads throughout the body.  This makes it hard to find, which means it is hard to design effective treatments.  In addition, these tumors tend to be very complex and these tumors vary differently between each other both in characteristics and behavior.  

But this research is also the first to suggest that this class of cancer inhibitors, known as checkpoint inhibitors, can benefit any glioblastoma patient.  Checkpoint inhibitors motivate the immune system to seek out and attack any malignant cells. But while the results have been quite promising, clinical trial evaluation for this drug only observed 35 patients; and, in addition to this, there was no control group. 

It should also be noted that patients who received this novel treatment—but only after surgery—did not see very much benefit.  The survival rate for glioblastoma even after taking this medication after treatment remained about the same: about 228 days, on average. 

The biggest takeaway from this study is that we may finally be on the way to achieving a true standard of care for recurrent glioblastoma.  At present, one such standard does not exist, but we may now be able to move forward with new studies in immunotherapy.