The FDA recently approved the first new treatment for metastic bladder cancer in 30 years.
What kind of treatment is it?
Researchers developed an immunotherapy drug called atezolizumab. It is designed to enhance the body’s natural defenses against cancer.
Dr. Arjun Balar, an oncologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, is an advocate of the new treatment. He explained how the medicine works, “Our immune systems are designed to identify, target, and destroy cancer cells; however, what cancer cells do is they preferentially co-opt off-switches to evade the immune system and basically run rampant and spread throughout the body.
How does the new therapy help stop the cancer cells?
The new immunotherapy works by giving the ‘body back control of these off-switches to allow it to fight the cancer’.
How common is bladder cancer?
The American Cancer Society reports that bladder cancer is the fourth most common cancer in men in the United States, though it is less common in women. Every year, around 77,000 adults around the country are diagnosed with the often deadly disease, which causes almost 16,000 deaths annually.
The majority of bladder cancer patients are diagnosed at age fifty-five but some get the disease earlier. One man who was diagnosed at age forty-three told CBS, “It was something I never really thought about; my wife and I have always been very healthy. I guess I got it in my head that people got cancer when they're old.”
The patient had to have his bladder removed and tried many experimental drugs. Nothing worked well for him until he entered a clinical trial for atezolizuma. Mr. Williamson’s tumors shrunk by 40 percent within the first year of using the drug and have since stabilized. It has been three years since his diagnosis, he is now 47, and is happy to report that he is back to being an active husband and father. He said he feels ‘great’ and is back to ‘working out and being active’.
Dr. Balar explained why the results of this immunotherapy are significant. He said most of the advances in bladder cancer over the last few years have been in patient safety. This is the first advancement that relates to efficacy (how well patients do in survival).
Dr. Balar further expounded on the fact that this is the first time in thirty years that there has been an advancement in bladder cancer medicine that relates to efficacy.
“So to have a drug like this, which while it does not work in the majority and only works in the minority, it is life-altering for the patients who receive the treatment and benefit from it,” according to Dr. Balar. He called this the beginning of a ‘new era in bladder cancer therapy’.