One study, conducted by scientists at New York University, involved more than 600 patients with advanced lung cancer.
"Non-small cell lung cancer is actually the leading cause of cancer death in the world even though it's not the most common cancer", said Dr. Leena Gandhi, lead investigator of the study and director of the thoracic medical oncology program at Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Health.
The hope is that such early treatment, when the patient is still quite healthy, will train their immune system to keep fighting off the cancer long-term, Forde said. They were picked at random to receive either chemotherapy plus immunotherapy, or chemotherapy plus a placebo, with two-thirds receiving the combination that included immunotherapy.
Researchers have found the drug Keytruda, when given along with standard chemotherapy, cut the risk of dying from the disease in half compared with chemo alone.
Pembrolizumab, sold under the brand name Keytruda, is an FDA-approved drug sold by a subsidiary of Merck & Company, Inc. that sponsored this study.
The median time until cancer worsened was about 7 months on the immunotherapy drugs versus 5.5 months for chemo.
Cancer patients should be given immunotherapy as the first line of treatment following the results of "game-changing" trials, charities say.
The new studies suggest that different types of tumors should receive different treatment regimens, all including immune therapy, Hellmann said.
Dr. Jorge Gomez, a volunteer spokesperson for the American Lung Association and a medical oncologist and director of thoracic oncology at Mount Sinai Hospital in NY, explained that "about 220,000 patients are diagnosed with lung cancer a year in the USA". The most common side effects were nausea, anemia and fatigue and in both groups about 65% of patients experienced severe side effects.
"We have a tool that helps us determine who are the patients that are most likely to benefit from this combination", Hellmann said. Roughly 20% of patients see their tumors respond when they get chemotherapy before surgery; in this study, among patients who received Opdivo instead, 45% of tumors had regressed and in three patients there was no remaining tumor at all, Forde said. By killing some tumor cells, chemotherapy could pop open the bags, release the contents and help immune cells unleashed by the checkpoint drugs to identify their prey.
How much it ultimately will extend life isn't known - more than half in the Keytruda group are still alive; median survival was just over 11 months for the others. The drugs are given through IVs and cost about $12,500 a month. Details are expected in a couple months.