By Jennifer C. King, PhD, Director of Science & Research at Lung Cancer Alliance

Research on the treatment of lung cancer has been moving quickly and 2017 was no different. Precision medicine was a key theme this year – there have been many treatment advances that depend on the gene changes in each person’s lung cancer.

Approvals of New Drugs and Molecular Tests

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved brand new drugs for non-small cell lung cancer patients such as Alunbrig (brigatinib) for ALK changes and a combination of Tafinlar (dabrafinib) and Mekinist (trametinib) for BRAF V600E changes.  Two panel diagnostic tests for checking many gene changes in one test were FDA approved.  We also saw the first biosimilar approval for the drug Mvasi (bevacizumab-awwb) – a biosimilar to Avastin (bevacizumab).

Targeted Therapies Continue to Improve

In 2017, research showed that newer drugs for certain gene changes (found through molecular testing) worked better than the first generation drugs.  Both Zykadia (ceritinib) and Alecensa (alectinib) were approved as “first-line” therapies for those with ALK changes – the first drug that a patient would take if their cancer had the right biomarker.  The study that led to the Alecensa approval was presented this past June and was striking. In the ALEX clinical trial, patients taking Alecensa lived a median 25.7 months before the cancer began to grow compared to 10.4 months on Xalkori and there were also less severe side effects.  This is clearly an important difference. Notably, many of these newer drugs work on cancer that has spread to the brain, unlike the first-generation drugs.

The Rise of Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a kind of treatment that helps the body’s own immune system fight cancer. It remains an important new choice in lung cancer. Clinical trials are asking how to best give these drugs, whose cancer responds to them, and how to combine them with other types of therapy.  Keytruda (pembrolizumab) received FDA approval to be given together with chemotherapy earlier this year. Data is just starting to be presented on other combinations. We also saw results from the PACIFIC trial that showed a benefit to taking immunotherapy as a “maintenance” drug after chemotherapy and radiation for Stage 3B cancer. Adding the drug did not decrease quality of life. We expect that the FDA may approve this soon.

Small Cell News

For those in the small cell community, these types of advances are coming. While we haven’t seen new drugs yet, there are now many important Phase III studies assessing new targeted and immunotherapy options that may lead to new approvals. We’re excited to start sharing that data soon.

The Importance of Early Detection

Along with of all of this, there is research in early detection to find lung cancer when it’s most treatable.  Just this week, the National Lung Cancer Roundtable convened many experts, researchers, doctors and patients to talk about new work to improve early detection for lung cancer and better carry out lung cancer screening.

We’re continuing to see advances in lung cancer drugs, treatments and detection. We are expect to see even more new and exciting research in 2018!

If you are interested in having your cancer tested for gene changes or need help finding clinical trials that might be right for you, give us a call at 1-800-298-2436 or email