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By: Tonya Nelson

IOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmmunotherapy has been making waves in cancer research and has become a large component of the Cancer Moonshot 2020 Initiative. Immunotherapy has shown promise for many cancers, including leukemia, lung cancer, and even rare cancers like mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer commonly found in the lining of the lungs, heart, or abdomen. There are about 3,000 new cases and unfortunately 2,500 deaths caused by mesothelioma each year. Regardless of the type, it’s only known cause is exposure to asbestos. After exposure, symptoms can take anywhere from 10 to 50 years to appear. Mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose because of this latency period and the nonspecific nature of the symptoms. As a result many patients are initially misdiagnosed and it may take months for a proper diagnosis. By this point, the cancer has generally developed into a later stage that is much more difficult to treat; often, patients can only seek palliative care to help alleviate symptoms.

Immunotherapy has proven to be a game changer for mesothelioma researchers and patients, providing hope in the face of a typically dire prognosis. Immunotherapy is a treatment method harnessing the immune system passively or actively. Passive immunotherapy gives the patient man-made proteins their body lacks, while active immunotherapy boosts the patient’s immune system to fight the cancer better. Currently, immunotherapy is only available to mesothelioma patients through clinical trials, but there have already been positive results.

Pembrolizumab, commonly known as Keytruda, has arguably shown the most promise for mesothelioma. Keytruda is an immunotherapy drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of non-small cell lung cancers, as well as several other cancers. It’s designed to target certain proteins within cancer cells, which ideally interferes with the growth of tumors and their spread. In an initial trial across several cancers that show solid tumor advancement, about 76% of mesothelioma patients found Keytruda to be an effective therapy. Among the 25 patients in the trial, 28% saw some shrinkage of their tumors and 48% saw stable disease, meaning there were no increases in the size or spread of the tumors. About six months after this trial, researchers saw Keytruda helped 3 out of 4 mesothelioma patients; for 48%, their tumors stopped growing and at least 1 in 4 saw their tumors shrink.

Phase 2 of trial studies for malignant mesothelioma patients is currently recruiting and hopefully will continue showing promising results. For some, Keytruda has already proven to be a last hope in battling such an aggressive cancer. Groundbreaking treatments like this take years to research and are expensive, especially for rare cancers that often don’t receive nearly as much funding. For example, breast cancer typically receives well over $600 million in federal funding each year; mesothelioma received just $6 million, or 0.1% of National Cancer Institute’s budget in 2004–2007. In order to develop new treatments like Keytruda, we can make a difference by donating to cancer research to help patients get the best care and treatment options possible.

Tonya Nelson is a health advocate working to raise awareness for mesothelioma. She’s dedicated to educating the public on the health risks of asbestos exposure.