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Health Team

FDA approves new cancer-fighting drug

Posted September 5, 2014

Tom Stutz didn't think he'd make it when his melanoma spread to his lungs, liver and spine three years ago.

"I was not eating, I was on oxygen, I couldn't breathe,” he said. “I couldn't walk.”

Traditional drug therapies didn't work, so the 74-year-old joined a trial at the University of California at Los Angeles to test the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab.

Stutz was one of more than 600 patients with Stage 4 melanoma who received the intravenous drug every three weeks. The medication targets a protein that keeps the immune system from attacking cancer.

"This is a treatment that is targeted not to the tumor itself,” said Dr. John Glaspy, an oncologist with the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center. “The hope is the immune system will target the cancer."

In the study, 72 percent of patients responded to the treatment. About a third saw their tumors shrink more than 30 percent and not grow back.

The results pushed the Food and Drug Administration to fast track the drug's approval.

"It's a huge deal because of what it does in melanoma and because it's potential in some other selected cancers as well,” Glaspy said.

Stutz has been on the drug for more than two years.

“I play tennis about two or three times a week. I gained all my weight back. I don't have a shortness of breath. I don't have a cough,” he said.

He isn’t cancer free, but the tumor in his lung is now half the size.

The drug will be sold under the brand name Keytruda. It's approved for patients who are no longer responding to other drugs.

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