New drug offers hope for lung cancer patients

December 4, 2008 3:54:03 PM PST
It's the deadliest type of cancer, but could the cure for lung cancer come from a simple shot?

Drugs currently available only extend survival by a few months.

It's just a few steps from her back door, but it is where Cookie McNamara escapes reality. "If you give a little bit, you get a whole bunch back," she said.

Cookie's reality means struggling with lung cancer.

Eighty-five-percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer die. Patients in the late stages of the disease have less than a 50-percent chance of living through the next year. Cookie's odds could be changing. She's one of the first to take part in a phase-three trial for a lung cancer vaccine.

"I hope it would be a huge turning point because we are overdue for a breakthrough in lung cancer management. Way overdue," said Dr. Lyudmila Bazhenova, a medical oncologist at the University of California-San Diego Medical Center.

Cancer cells emit a protein that makes them invisible to the immune system. The vaccine works by revealing the cancer cells to the rest of the body. Now the immune system can see them and attack.

"This is kind of what I would call the designer drug designed to specifically target those cancer cells and not really hit those healthy cells," Bazhenova said.

Early results show more than 60-percent of people who had the vaccine lived at least another year. More than 40-percent lived two years.

"If it doesn't help me, it's sure going to help other people," McNamara said.

She stays strong by thinking about the impact she's making on medicine. "I just think it's really, really exciting," she said.

After several months of injections, she feels good and is determined to blaze the trail that leads to a cure.

The Food and Drug Administration gave this vaccine fast-track status because there's nothing like it currently in development. Once approved, it could take about two years for the vaccine to be publicly available.

Leading cancer centers around the world are currently enrolling patients in the phase-three trial. To be eligible, lung cancer patients must be done with chemotherapy and their tumor must be stable.

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