Giving Compass' Take:

• Susan Keown reports on the promising results of a non-randomized immunotherapy drug trial for patients with Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare and deadly skin cancer. 

• How can funders help to advance research in this therapy? 

• Learn how to find and fund scientific research

More than two-thirds of people with an advanced form of a rare skin cancer are on track to survive at least two years after starting an immunotherapy drug on a landmark clinical trial, researchers reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

That’s a profound shift for this deadly cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma, or MCC. Just a few years ago, patients with advanced MCC would invariably receive chemotherapy, the previous standard of care. As many as three-quarters of them would die within that two-year time frame, previous studies have shown.

The investigators are “thrilled” that so many of the trial participants are doing so well compared to what historical data would predict, said Dr. Martin “Mac” Cheever of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, one of the leaders of this first-of-its-kind study.

Fifty patients enrolled on the trial, which was not randomized. After receiving pembrolizumab, 28 saw their cancers shrink or even disappear — an unusually high rate of response for a solid-tumor cancer, Cheever said. For almost all of these patients, the results were holding two years after their first dose of the drug, the researchers reported. Based on their results to date, the research team calculated a two-year survival rate of more than 68 percent.

The drug is not without risks. In their most recent report, the scientists wrote that the trial drug likely contributed to severe side effects in 14 of the 50 patients, including one death.

As noteworthy as the findings have been, Cheever said, “It’s the beginning, not the end.”

Read the full article about the immunotherapy drug trial by Susan Keown at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.