NSCLC: The Promise of Immunotherapy
As part of our series on non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), Real World Health Care spoke with Hossein Borghaei, D.O., in the Department of Hematology/Oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center, which is part of the Temple Health System. Dr. Borghaei serves as Chief, Thoracic Medical Oncology; Director, Lung Cancer Risk Assessment; and Associate Professor. He specializes in endobronchial disease, lung cancer, lung metastases, mesothelioma and thymoma and conducts research in molecular therapeutics.
Dr. Borghaei was the lead investigator of the CheckMate 057 study, which helped to introduce a new immunotherapy paradigm in lung cancer treatment.
Real World Health Care: Tell us about your role at Fox Chase Cancer Center, especially as it relates to the research and treatment of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).
Hossein Borghaei: I’m a medical oncologist by training, with a special concentration in lung cancers. I treat patients at all stages of the disease and have run a number of clinical trials. Some of those trials have been investigator-driven, while others have been funded by the industry. I’m also involved in the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group which does NCI-funded translational and clinical research. I also have a small research lab that does pre-clinical investigations, working with other investigators to find new ways to treat cancer patients with new or existing drugs.
RWHC: Can you share some highlights of your recent NSCLC research?
HB: The most interesting, impactful and attention-getting study I’ve been involved with recently is related to immunotherapy. This was a Phase III study in which we found that non-squamous NSCLC patients can live significantly longer with an immunotherapy drug called nivolumab than they can with single agent chemotherapy. The immunotherapy treatment has been approved, allowing physicians to use it to manage patients when there is a progression of the disease after platinum doublet chemotherapy. We also found that this immunotherapy resulted in fewer grade 3 or 4 adverse events.
We recently presented a follow-up to the study in which we found that, after a two-year time point, nearly double the previously treated non-squamous NSCLC patients and nearly triple the previously treated squamous NSCLC patients were alive compared with those treated with chemotherapy.
RWHC: What do you think are the biggest challenges in NSCLC research?
HB: We need more funding. NSCLC is a disease that affects a large population. It’s the number one cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. and it’s a very difficult disease to treat. Having adequate funding to study NSCLC is important. There are a number of drugs being investigated to treat NSCLC, so we also need patients who can participate in rationally designed clinical trials that can address specific questions and help to bring new treatments to the marketplace. There is certainly a tremendous amount of interest in evaluating new treatment options, but investigators running clinical trials are struggling in some cases to find the right patient population to study.
RWHC: What do you think are the biggest challenges relating to current NSCLC treatment?
HB: One of the biggest challenges relating to treatment comes back to the ability of patients to participate in clinical trials. Many trials are conducted in academic centers like Fox Chase Cancer Center, making it difficult for patients in remote geographic areas to participate. Even for patients who live close to a clinical trial location, they may have co-morbidities such as emphysema or COPD, making it physically challenging to participate.
Another challenge we face as clinical researchers is our ability to obtain biopsies from NSCLC patients. Biopsied tissue from tumors at different phases of the disease is critical for our ability to understand why some treatments work on some patients but not on others, and every biopsy has its risks. I’m hopeful that the emerging field of liquid biopsy — which will allow us to do molecular-level testing on blood samples — will help us overcome this challenge.
RWHC: What do you think have been the most important advances in NSCLC treatment over the past decade?
HB: Molecularly targeted therapies that allow clinicians to personalize cancer treatments have been successful for about 25 percent of lung cancer patients. Our ability to understand what’s going on in a tumor at a molecular level lets us better target specific drugs to treat and manage the disease.
RWHC: Why did you get involved in this field?
HB: As an oncology clinician, I really get to know my patients on a personal level. A cancer diagnosis is life-altering, and as a treating physician, I get to address my patients’ concerns and fears. I find that closeness extremely rewarding. From a research standpoint, there is such a huge need to understand the disease process and so many patients that we can’t yet cure. I want to contribute to our overall understanding of this disease and why it’s so difficult to treat. The research opportunities in NSCLC are almost limitless.