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Immune System Booster Bests Chemotherapy in Cancer Study

John Ryan of Aldie, Virginia, diagnosed with incurable lung cancer two years ago, was assigned to receive the immunotherapy drug Opdivo in a study two years ago; three months later, his tumor had been reduced by 65 percent.

Cancer researchers say a new drug that boosts the body's immune system to attack tumors is less toxic and performs better than traditional chemotherapy in fighting a form of lung cancer.

In a study of 582 previously treated patients, Opdivo — one of three U.S.-approved drugs that stimulate the immune system — reduced by 27 percent the risk of death from one form of non-small-cell lung cancer, compared with chemotherapy.

It also shrank tumors for nearly 20 percent of those patients, while the chemo medication docetaxel was effective in just over 12 percent of the patients.

Scientists say Opdivo, known generically as nivolumab, works by blocking a protein that prevents the human immune system from attacking cancer cells.

Researcher Fouad Namouni, who oversees Opdivo development for the pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb, told Reuters that the findings signal "the end of the chemotherapy era in second-line treatment of lung cancer."

In a separate study, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere found that genetic testing can predict whether cancers in some people will respond to the immunotherapy.

The findings were discussed Friday in Chicago at the opening of an annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.