Treating lung cancer with immunotherapy has been around for some time. Now, however, the way in which lung cancer patients are treated with immunotherapy agents may be changing. One of the first immunotherapy treatments developed was a drug manufactured by Merck called Keytruda. Keytruda works in certain patients by utilizing the body’s own immune system to attack and kill cancer cells. It has been used by itself and in combination with chemoradiation or with other immunotherapy agents. As a result, lung cancer patients that can be treated with Keytruda can live longer. In fact, the five-year survival for advanced lung cancer patients has been transformed from 5% to 25% in those patients.
One of the problems, though, is that immunotherapy has been very expensive. Currently, the cost of Keytruda infusion therapy has been in the neighborhood of $15,000 a month. We have recently written on ways to afford new cancer treatments. However, the Merck patent is running out. By 2028, other drug manufacturers will be permitted to make similar drugs called biosimilars. This will undoubtedly make treatment more affordable. Merck is looking for ways to protect their advantage in the cancer treatment market.
Merck’s newest innovation is a process that will make Keytruda a simple injectable drug, rather than a drug that must be given over a several hour period in a doctor’s office by slow drip infusion. Merck’s injectable form of Keytruda is currently in clinical trials. If approved, cancer patients will be able to have a subcutaneous (under the skin) injection every month and get the same benefit as hours long intravenous infusion of Keytruda. This simple shot could improve the quality of life for patients with advanced cancer.