An early-stage trial of the immunotherapy drug, pembrolizumab, has proven it to be effective for a small number of men with incurable disease. We take a closer a look at how it works and what we're doing to bring the benefits of immunotherapy to many more men with prostate cancer.
A small, early-stage clinical trial has shown that a new type of treatment – known as immunotherapy – can benefit a small number of men with advanced prostate cancer.
Immunotherapy drugs work by activating the immune system to attack the cancer and have shown promise in number of different diseases. Researchers haven't been able to get them to work in prostate cancer, though. Until now.
The Institute of Cancer Research found just five per cent of the 258 men it treated with pembrolizumab saw their tumours shrink or disappear, and now hopes to identify what makes these men's cancers susceptible.
Professor Johann de Bono (pictured above), who led the research and presented the results at the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference last week, said: "Our study has found that immunotherapy can benefit a subset of men with advanced, otherwise untreatable prostate cancer, and these are most likely to include patients who have specific DNA repair mutations within their tumours.
"We are planning a new clinical trial, specifically in men with prostate cancer whose tumours have mutations in DNA repair genes, to see if immunotherapy can become a standard part of their treatment."
Prostate cancer has lagged behind other cancers when it comes to immunotherapy, failing for biological reasons that we still don't fully understand. However, there is a lot of potential for this type of treatment – even reversing the growth of the cancer after all other treatments have failed.
That's why next month we're organising a meeting of world experts in prostate cancer and immunotherapy, to review the challenges that we’re facing and identifying where our research funding can make the biggest difference.
"Immunotherapy is one of the most exciting areas of prostate cancer research at the moment," says Dr Iain Frame, our director of research. "But we have a long way to go before we can work out who will benefit, and whether we could increase that number."