A therapy that liberates the immune system to attack cancer cells drove Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) into complete or partial remission in fully 87 percent of patients with resistant forms of the disease who participated in an early-phase clinical trial, investigators at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and partnering institutions report in a study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine and simultaneously presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology (ASH) in San Francisco. The results provide some of the most dramatic evidence to date of the potential of therapies that increase the ability of the immune system to kill cancer cells. While clinical trials of such immunotherapies in other cancers have shown them to be highly effective in a subgroup of patients, the new study stands out because nearly all patients benefited from the treatment. The success of the agent, nivolumab, in this study has prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to designate it a "breakthrough therapy" for treating relapsed HL, and a large, multinational Phase 2 trial is now under way. "What makes these results especially encouraging is that they were achieved in patients who had exhausted other treatment options," said the study's co-senior author, Margaret Shipp (image), M.D., Chief, Division of Hematologic Neoplasia at Dana-Farber. "We're also excited by the duration of responses to the drug: the majority of patients who had a response are still doing well more than a year after their treatment." The study involved 23 patients with relapsed or treatment-resistant HL, a cancer of white blood cells called lymphocytes. Although relatively uncommon - with less than 10,000 new cases each year in the U.S. - it is one of the most frequent cancers in children and young adults.
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