In a study published in the December 2022 edition of Clinical Lung Cancer, researchers and physicians from Kaiser Medical Centers in northern California found significant improvements in survival rates for malignant pleural mesothelioma treated with immunotherapy. The average life expectancy for mesothelioma is 12-21 months.
Researchers found patients who received immunotherapy drugs as part of a multimodal treatment plan had an increased median survival of 6 months. Some patients even survived for more than 2 years after this treatment.
The most notable improvements were observed in those who received chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and surgery.
The retroactive study included 179 participants. While identical in age, gender, and race, the participants represented all four mesothelioma stages.
For years, studies have shown that multimodal therapy using a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery is effective in treating mesothelioma.
However, this study is the first of its kind to show the promising effects of immunotherapy in multimodal treatment plans — giving patients and their families more hope through new therapies.
Immunotherapy for Mesothelioma: Past and Future
In a similar study published in spring 2022, a group of doctors across Spain explained how mesothelioma treatment has not changed — until more recently.
“The treatment options for patients with [malignant pleural mesothelioma] were very limited until recently and had remained largely unchanged for more than a decade. Recent years, however, have witnessed dramatic improvements in our understanding of this disease and a surge in new research and treatments.”
These doctors also noted that “efforts to identify reliable biomarkers to help select the best candidates for immunotherapy must be intensified in the coming years,” and that continued medical advancements will promote additional research into such treatment options.
How Immunotherapy Works to Improve Mesothelioma Survival Rates
Immunotherapy involves patients receiving immune-boosting drugs to help their bodies identify, target, and kill cancer cells. It was previously used to treat several other cancers before clinical trials showed immunotherapy’s effectiveness against mesothelioma.
Immunotherapy drugs are developed to have different characteristics or targets within the immune system.
For example, nivolumab, distributed under the brand name Opdivo®, targets a specific protein known as PD-1. In contrast, ipilimumab, available under the brand name Yervoy®, targets another protein called CTLA-4.
Both PD-1 and CTLA-4 proteins normally work to keep the immune system from killing too many cells. However, this may cause cancerous cells to continue growing. When administered together, nivolumab and ipilimumab work to inhibit these proteins and encourage the immune system to kill cancer cells.
Like many chemotherapy treatments, immunotherapy is delivered intravenously on a set schedule. As the drugs circulate through the bloodstream, they are able to support immune function throughout the body.
Throughout the study, patients did not only receive immunotherapy. Instead, immunotherapy was used both before and after surgical and/or chemotherapy treatments. After the majority of cancer cells are shrunk or removed, immunotherapy drugs help attack any remaining cells throughout the body.
Since mesothelioma cells are highly aggressive, boosted immune cells throughout the body can be the first line of defense against the threat of tumor spread and can keep cancer cells localized to one area of the body.
Immunotherapy Shows Promise for Sarcomatoid Cell Types
One unique finding of this study was that immunotherapy showed tremendous effectiveness against sarcomatoid mesothelioma.
The sarcomatoid cell type typically has the poorest prognosis of all mesothelioma cell types. However, the study found that patients with sarcomatoid cell types who received immunotherapy experienced an improvement in their 12-month survival rate of more than 60%.
Mesothelioma can be broken down into three cell types: epithelial, sarcomatoid, and biphasic. Epithelial cells are considered less aggressive than sarcomatoid. As a result, this cell type is more responsive to surgical treatment.
However, sarcomatoid cells are thin, spindle-shaped cells that easily break off from other cells. This allows sarcomatoid to spread throughout the body at much faster rates and be less responsive to surgery since cancer cells are often left behind.
Immunotherapy’s tremendous improvement in survival rate for sarcomatoid cell types is a breakthrough in understanding the best treatment methods for mesothelioma.
The Importance of Early-Stage Mesothelioma Treatment
This recent study is another sign of hope for mesothelioma patients across the country. With such notable improvements in survival rates for both early-stage and late-stage mesothelioma, immunotherapy is a promising treatment method that may be added to conventional treatment plans.
Despite such promising findings, the most important factor to improve survival is identifying mesothelioma symptoms early, especially if you have a history of asbestos exposure. Common warning signs and symptoms of mesothelioma include chest pain, persistent cough, and unexplained weight loss.
With an early diagnosis, patients are more likely to be eligible for more treatment options before the cancer cells become widespread. At early stages, mesothelioma cells are also much more responsive to treatment.
If you or a loved one need help finding a mesothelioma specialist near you who can provide a diagnosis or develop a multimodal treatment plan, contact Mesothelioma Hope’s Patient Advocates today at (866) 608-8933.