A New Immunotherapy Treatment Is Kicking Cancer's Ass

A growing optimism.

Last year, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was diagnosed with advanced melanoma that had spread to his brain. Today, he is alive and well, and as of March, he is no longer undergoing cancer treatment. 

The 91-year-old Carter is one of many cancer patients who have had successful experiences with a combination of radiation and a new class of immunotherapy drugs — including the drug Keytruda. Scientists reported on Tuesday that Carter's results are becoming more and more common

"We are in the midst of a sea change in how we are treating cancer," Louis Weiner, director of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, told The Washington Post. "We're really seeing the fruits of many years of research into what drives cancer and how it interacts with the immune system to defeat it and survive."

This research has helped lead to the development of immunotherapy drugs that vastly improve the survival rates of advanced melanoma patients. These same immunotherapy drugs are also showing encouraging results against head and neck cancers and the lethal skin cancer known as Merkel cell carcinoma. They have also been approved for use in patients with kidney and lung cancers. 

Immunotherapy drugs work by helping the immune system locate and attack cancer-causing viruses, which are responsible for about 15 percent of cancers. 

Still, in some trials, less than a third of patients responded positively to the drugs, which leaves a lot of room for improvement. Optimism is growing, but scientists aren't quite popping champagne bottles yet.

"This period for immunotherapy is comparable to the 1960s for chemotherapy, when we were just beginning to use it," Roy Jensen, director of the University of Kansas Cancer Center, toldThe Washington Post. "There is so much to do and to figure out. We're just at the start of this."

Cover photo of President Jimmy Carter: Frazer Harrison / Getty