Former president Jimmy Carter announced yesterday that the cancer in his brain has disappeared, thanks to an immunotherapy drug that the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) helped to make a reality.
Back in August, Carter had a small lesion removed from his liver. The mass turned out to be melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Further analysis revealed that the cancer had spread, or metastasized, not only to his liver, but to four different parts of his brain as well. Responding to his grim prognosis in his own words, Carter put his fate “in the hands of God.”
Luckily, doctors also had a role to play in his fate. They decided to treat Carter with a relatively new immunotherapy drug, pembrolizumab (Keytruda®), which was only approved by the FDA the previous year, and had been shown to be effective against advanced melanoma.
After four rounds of pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) treatment in combination with radiation, his body—with a newly invigorated immune system—appears to have eliminated all of the metastatic melanoma.
Carter’s amazing success stems from the unique mechanisms of immunotherapy, which the Cancer Research Institute has supported and championed since its inception.
“While the concept of immunotherapy itself has been around for many decades, its clinical impact has only occurred recently and still has much more to offer. Hopefully this announcement will spur more investment and innovative breakthroughs in this promising field,” notes Jedd Wolchok, M.D., Ph.D., who serves as CRI’s director of clinical trials and an associate director of CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council. Wolchok was also involved with the initial clinical study of pembrolizumab.
"When giving pembrolizumab, it unleashes this immune response and leads to long lasting responses in these patients." - Antoni Ribas, M.D., Ph.D.
Immunotherapy seeks to eliminate cancer by activating an anti-tumor immune response. In this case, pembrolizumab is an antibody that attaches to the PD-1 receptor on our immune T cells. In this way, pembrolizumab serves as a checkpoint inhibitor, and enhances our body’s natural ability to destroy cancer cells.
According to CRI-funded scientist Antoni Ribas, M.D., Ph.D., “approximately one-third of patients with advanced melanoma have an immune system that was trying to attack the cancer, but was being turned off by the cancer. When giving pembrolizumab it unleashes this immune response and leads to long lasting responses in these patients. Age is not a limitation to achieving this benefit.”
CRI’s role in bringing this immunotherapy to patients cannot be understated, having supported both the basic research and clinical trials that enabled this revolutionary cancer treatment. Four labs—those of Arlene Sharpe, M.D., Ph.D., Drew Pardoll, M.D., Ph.D., Lieping Chen M.D., Ph.D., and Gordon Freeman, Ph.D.—received CRI funding to uncover the effects of the PD-1 pathway.
Meanwhile, Ribas—a CRI-SU2C Immunotherapy Dream Team grantee—was the principal investigator for the phase I trial of pembrolizumab.
Ribas, along with Wolchok, Hassane Zarour, M.D., (a former CRI fellow and clinical trials network member), and F. Stephen Hodi Jr., M.D., (a CRI clinical trials network member), also co-authored the publication that reported the results of that phase I trial.
Drs. Sharpe, Chen, and Freeman, along with Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., recently received the William B. Coley Award, CRI’s highest award in tumor immunology, for their work on the PD-1 pathway.
Meet T.J., a melanoma patient who is receiving Keytruda—the same therapy as former president Carter—on CRI's website for patients and caregivers, TheAnswerToCancer.org.
Furthermore, Shuangping Shi, Ph.D., who received CRI-funding as a graduate student and is now a director at Merck, served on the team that was responsible for developing both the cell line and the manufacturing process for pembrolizumab production, which is manufactured and marketed by Merck.
With immunotherapy showing effectiveness against many forms of advanced cancer, the hope is that research and development into this promising approach will be expanded so that even more patients can benefit. As Wolchok believes, “immunotherapy is what holds the promise for durable control, not just of melanoma, but of many cancers.”
Former president Carter will continue to receive regular immunotherapy treatments with pembrolizumab, and we wish him the best as he strives to stay ahead of what was once a deadly disease.