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The same cancer drug that appears to have cleared tumors from Jimmy Carter’s brain has helped more than 200 other patients live for as long as three years, doctors reported Wednesday.
The drug’s called Keytruda, and it works in a new way to help the body’s own immune system tackle hard-to-reach tumor cells.
A new report about to be released to a meeting of cancer specialists shows that 40 percent of the melanoma patients who have been testing Keytruda are still alive, three years after they started taking the drug. Their normal life expectancy should have been about 11 months.
“This is huge in the melanoma community,” said Tim Turnham, executive director of the Melanoma Research Foundation.
“When this study was started the average life expectancy of someone with advanced melanoma was 11 months and now we're seeing that a large percentage of people are living at least three years,” Turnham told NBC News.
For Carter, who was diagnosed last fall, it’s meant he’s able to continue teaching Sunday school classes and even travel abroad.
“In the past, patients with this type of melanoma – he has metastases to the brain – you don’t even see responses to therapy,” said Dr. Julie Vose, president of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO).
But it’s too soon to call it a cure.
“It's difficult to know at what point you call it a cure. For the patient though, it means they are cancer-free and for some of those patients, it is likely that their cancer never will come back,” Turnham told NBC News.
The report will be featured at ASCO’s annual meeting in Chicago next month.
For the trial, Caroline Robert of Gustave Roussy and Paris-Sud University in France and colleagues treated 655 patients with advanced melanoma. Seventy-five percent of them had already been given other cancer treatments.
On average, the patients lived two years and 40 percent of them are still alive, three years later. About 15 percent of these patients have what’s called a complete remission, meaning there is no trace of their tumors.
And 61 of the patients – nine percent – have stopped taking the drug after their tumors went away. Virtually all of them are still in remission.
The Food and Drug Administration gave Keytruda accelerated approval for melanoma in 2014. It's approved to treat lung cancer and has "breakthrough therapy" status for colon cancer and Hodgkin's lymphoma.
“In a matter of a few years, these therapies have truly transformed the outlook for patients with melanoma and many other hard-to-treat cancers,” said Dr. Don Dizon, an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a spokesman for ASCO.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. It will be diagnosed in more than 76,000 Americans this year, according to the American Cancer Society, and it will kill 10,000.
Rates are rising, in part because tanning became fashionable. It’s easy to cure when caught early, but it is often hard to tell is a mole or freckle has turned cancerous. Carter, for example, was only diagnosed once the tumors had spread to his brain.
There are side-effects, including fatigue, itchiness and rash and it was bad enough for 8 percent of patients that they stopped taking it.