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Immunotherapy transforms lung cancer, the biggest cancer killer

Immune therapy drugs can transform lung cancer treatment, giving patients years of extra life, doctors reported Monday.

They found that pre-treating lung cancer patients with immune therapy drugs before they have surgery can help melt away the tumor and at the same time limit or even stop its spread.

And combinations of immunotherapy drugs have helped other lung cancer patients get off more toxic standard chemotherapy while also extending their lives.

The results are so startling that it is likely every lung cancer patient should be given the option of immunotherapy first, said Dr. Roy Herbst, a lung cancer specialist at Yale Cancer Center who was not involved in the studies.

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“I have never seen progress move so fast,” Herbst told NBC News.

 “The results today are really a paradigm shift. They will mean more lung cancer patients getting immunotherapy up front.”

Immunotherapy helps the body’s immune system fight off cancer through a variety of mechanisms: by boosting immune system activity, uncloaking tumor cells and with the use of engineered immune system proteins that very specifically target tumors.

They include the new class of drugs that appear to have stalled former President Jimmy Carter’s melanoma.

The drugs had been shown to help lung cancer, the No.1 cause of cancer death globally and in the United States.

And the new results, released at an American Association for Cancer Research conference in Chicago and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, show more creative use of the drugs could change the way doctors treat lung cancer.

In one study, a team at Johns Hopkins medical school treated 20 patients with one of the immune therapy drugs before they had surgery to remove lung cancer tumors.

A year later, 16 patients were alive and the cancer was still undetectable. Two more had their cancer come back but now have no symptoms after extra treatment. One died of lung cancer and one died of an unrelated head injury. So a year and a half later, 18 of the lung cancer patients are still alive.

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