Immunotherapy, Ovarian Cancer Treatment Top List of 2014 Cancer Developments

Immunotherapy, treatments for ovarian cancer, and investigating game-changing drug therapies topped the list of the most important cancer research and clinical developments at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 2014.

Here are some highlights from the last year in research:

Hodgkin lymphoma
Some of the most dramatic evidence of potential of immunotherapies was in the treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma.

In an early-phase clinical trial, research showed nivolumab, a drug that unleashes the immune system to attack cancer cells, achieved complete or partial remissions in Hodgkin lymphoma patients with resistant forms of the disease.

The success of nivolumab in this study prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to designate it a “breakthrough therapy” for treating relapsed Hodgkin lymphoma, and a large, multinational phase 2 trial is now under way.

“What makes these results especially encouraging is that they were achieved in patients who had exhausted other treatment options,” said the study’s co-senior author, Margaret Shipp, MD, chief, Division of Hematologic Neoplasia at Dana-Farber. “We’re also excited by the duration of responses to the drug: the majority of patients who had a response are still doing well more than a year after their treatment.”

Lab Pipettes-2Ovarian cancer
Research reported in October showed a combination drug therapy may be highly effective in recurrent ovarian cancer. This is the first ovarian cancer study to test a combination of drugs that could be taken orally.

A clinical trial compared the activity of the combination of the drug olaparib, which blocks DNA repair, and the blood vessel inhibitor drug cediranib, against olaparib by itself. Trial results showed a near doubling of progression-free survival benefit for the combination therapy over use of the single drug alone.

“The findings of this study are exciting because they support the idea that combining these two targeted oral therapies results in significant activity in ovarian cancer, more so than olaparib alone,” said Joyce Liu, MD, MPH, the lead investigator and medical oncologist at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber. “We are looking forward to further exploring this combination in ovarian cancer and potentially increasing effective treatment options for our patients with this cancer.”

In December, the FDA also approved olaparib as a new treatment for advanced and recurrent ovarian cancer.

Stomach cancer
Based on results of a clinical trial led by Dana-Farber scientists, in 2014 the FDA approved a molecularly targeted drug as second-line treatment in advanced stomach cancer that has progressed after standard chemotherapy has failed.       

“For years we have looked for new and really effective drugs for stomach cancer,” said Charles Fuchs, MD, MPH, director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber. “We have relied on standard chemotherapies for a long time, and we’ve needed targeted agents based on the fundamental biology of stomach cancer.”

The drug, Ramucirumab, is a monoclonal antibody compound that attacks the cancer by preventing it from developing new blood vessels to nourish its growth.

Prostate Cancer
Dramatic results in a phase 3 trial reported this year should change the way physicians have routinely treated prostate cancer patients.

The study showed men with newly diagnosed metastatic, hormone-sensitive prostate cancer lived more than a year longer when they received a chemotherapy drug as initial treatment instead of waiting to for the disease to become resistant to hormone blockers.

“The benefit is substantial and warrants this being a new standard treatment for men who have high-extent disease and are fit for chemotherapy,” said Christopher J. Sweeney, MBBS, of Dana-Farber’s Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology and principal investigator for the study.

In September, the FDA approved a new type of immunotherapy drug for melanoma. The drug, pembrolizumab, was designated as a “breakthrough therapy” by the FDA and placed on a fast-tracked approval process. Marketed as Keytruda, the new drug was the first in the U.S. that blocked the PD-1 protein, which is used by melanoma and other cancer cells to avoid detection and attack by the body’s immune system.

A few months later, the FDA also approved Opdivo, another immunotherapy drug for skin cancer that blocks the PD-1 protein.