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Experimental Drug Shows Promise in Lung Cancer
Posted Date: 10/29/2013 10:00 AM
Dr. Edward Garon


  • New lung cancer drug MK-3475 showing promise in trials
  • Blocks key protein, allowing immune system to attack cancer
  • Side effects generally well tolerated
  • Further trials currently underway

An experimental new cancer drug called MK-3475, which has shown dramatic promise for treating melanoma, is also showing early potential as an effective treatment for patients with non-small cell lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death of men and women worldwide.

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 1.4 million people die from non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) every year, and it is the most common type of lung cancer, representing approximately 85 percent of all lung cancer diagnoses.

Some cancer cells can evade detection by the human immune system by expressing a protein, called PD-L1, that interacts with another protein called PD-1, blocking the immune system from seeing the cancer as an invader. MK-3475, an anti-PD-1 immunotherapy drug made by pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck, enables the immune system to see the cancer as a problem and allows activation of T cells (the foot soldiers of the immune system) to attack and kill the cancer cells.

Detailed data from this new study were on safety and activity from a group of 38 previously treated NSCLC patients who received MK-3475 every three weeks. The response rate of patients given MK-3475 was 24 percent. The median overall survival rate was 51 weeks. Among the patients who responded, the median response duration had not been reached at the time of this analysis, and is at least 62 weeks.

The most commonly reported drug-related side effects in the study were rash (21 percent), skin itching (18 percent), fatigue (16 percent), diarrhea (13 percent) and joint pain (11 percent). Most side effects, however, were of low grade.

Preliminary results of the study were presented by Dr. Edward Garon, director of thoracic oncology at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, on Tuesday October 29 at the 15th World Conference on Lung Cancer. The summit was held by the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer, in Sydney, Australia.

“These are early results, but we are very encouraged by what we’ve seen so far with this drug,” Garon said. “Lung cancer patients who have disease that has grown after two prior therapies do not have many options and we are cautiously optimistic that this might be a treatment that improves their chances in the future.”

Based on this data, a new study (called a phase II/III trial) comparing two different doses of MK-3475 to standard chemotherapy for lung cancer has now begun accruing patients.

UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center has more than 240 researchers and clinicians engaged in disease research, prevention, detection, control, treatment and education. One of the nation's largest comprehensive cancer centers, the Jonsson center is dedicated to promoting research and translating basic science into leading-edge clinical studies. In July 2013, the Jonsson Cancer Center was named among the top 12 cancer centers nationwide by U.S. News & World Report, a ranking it has held for 14 consecutive years. For more information on the Jonsson Cancer Center, visit our website at


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