By: Jennifer C. King, PhD, Director of Science and Research, Lung Cancer Alliance

Last week, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Opdivo (nivolumab) as a new treatment for small cell lung cancer. This is the first new drug for small cell lung cancer that has been approved in decades. The lung cancer community should be very excited about this advance and the future of small cell research.

Opdivo is a type of immunotherapy called a checkpoint inhibitor. Immunotherapy works differently than most cancer drugs.  The goal of immunotherapy is to help the body’s own immune system fight cancer.

There are a few important things to know about this approval:

  • It’s currently only for a very specific group of patients — those with metastatic small cell lung cancer on their third therapy, who have taken platinum-based chemotherapy and another treatment
  • The number of people who respond well to this drug is not nearly as high as we would like, but those who do respond well have a long-lasting response (which is not common in small cell!)
  • This is the first immunotherapy for this disease and it could potentially usher in a whole new era of ways to treat small cell lung cancer

In non-small cell lung cancer, the initial approval of Opdivo in 2015 for a small group of patients sparked a wave of research and treatment advances that led to the approval of four different immunotherapy drugs in this class for a growing list of eligible patients over the next three years.

In small cell lung cancer, we are also looking at that possibility. In fact, one of the biggest talks at the World Conference on Lung Cancer in September will be on a similar immunotherapy given in combination with chemotherapy as a first treatment for small cell.

And there is much more coming. Researchers are studying how to treat small cell lung cancer with combinations of these drugs; when to best give the therapies and who is most likely to respond.

So there is a lot of reason for hope.  We now have a new immunotherapy treatment option for small cell lung cancer – something that has been a long time coming – and there is a great deal of promise for the future.

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