A groundbreaking biological treatment for cancer jointly developed by Israeli and American researchers has been presented at an international conference on cancer research in Chicago.
"This medicine is a miracle cure - it's a real breakthrough," says Prof. Jacob Schachter, head of research and treatment of melanoma and skin cancer at Sheba Medical Center, who is part of the international research team for the medicine.
The new treatment comes from the field of immunotherapy, which helps the immune system fight cancer, unlike chemotherapy, which attacks the tumor itself. There are various types of cancerous tumors, such as melanoma, that use a "shield" to protect themselves from being identified by the immune system. The new medicine paralyzes this type of screening mechanism, so the immune system can recognize the cancer and attack it.
The results of the international research suggest that using the medicine Pembrolizumab, also known as MK-3475, yields impressive survival rates in patients with advanced cancer, with 69 percent surviving one year and 63 percent surviving 18 months.
Without this treatment, patients with metastatic melanoma die from the disease within 4-5 months, after reaching stage four cancer. The research tested 41,818 patients, 1,800 of them in Israel. The research took place over a decade, while the clinical stage took four years.
The new medicine, which belongs to a new generation of biological drugs, yielded extraordinary results to the point that the FDA approved it for "compassionate use" (the use of an investigational drug outside a clinical trial by patients with life-threatening conditions) and it will be given for free to terminally ill patients. It is also be fast tracked for approval, which is expected by October.
"One of my patients who suffered metastatic melanoma in very critical condition entered the trial, and within six weeks his body was completely clean of cancer," said Schachter. He stressed that because of the biological nature of the drug; its side effects are minimal and allows patients optimal quality of life.
Merck, the American company that developed the drug, has a department in Israel called MSD, which operates a research division working in tandem with medical centers in Israel.
"We are on our way to turn melanoma a treatable chronic disease," said Schachter. "We are also seeing positive results in other types of cancer such as the urinary bladder, head neck and lungs". Prof. Alise Reicin, who heads the American team that developed the drug, termed it "definitely a breakthrough in the war against cancer".
Thousands of doctors and researchers from around the world attended the conference of the American Society for Clinical Oncology, an annual event focusing on the latest medicine and research in cancer treatment.
A significant number of this year's lectures were dedicated to research in biological medicine and immunotherapy, which are seen as the new generation of cancer treatment.