New cancer drugs promise better outcomes, fewer side effects

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A new wave of recently approved treatments is expected to significantly alter the fight against cancer.

"We now have many more tools — and more effective tools — to help our patients with certain types of cancers," says Robert B. Donegan, M.D., chief of the division of medical oncology at Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC). He adds that "2015 and 2016 were remarkable years when it came to new drug approval for the treatment of cancer." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved 16 new oncology medications in 2015 and at least 10 in 2016.


Of those many treatments, three new drugs have been approved for the treatment of advanced non-small cell lung cancer (the most common form of lung cancer) and four new drugs for the treatment of multiple myelomas. Also making the list is the first therapeutic virus, a drug directly injected into melanoma skin tumors that cannot be surgically removed. "Some of the responses to these drugs have been dramatic and sustained," says Dr. Donegan.

Michael Stein, executive director of oncology services at GBMC, is also very encouraged by the new drugs recently added to the arsenal of GBMC's physicians. "Our physicians are already using these new therapies, among many others, to offer patients the best chance of defeating their cancer," Stein says. And there's more good news: "These drugs in particular appear to have the potential to be effective against other tumor types in the near future."


"In the past, most of the new medicines approved to fight cancer were chemotherapy drugs," explains Dr. Donegan, adding that chemotherapy traditionally causes many side effects (like hair loss) because it also interferes with healthy cells.

"Chemotherapy drugs are still very important in the treatment of many cancers," he says. "However, the newer drugs that are getting approved are generally more specific, either by targeting the cancer cell directly or by recruiting the patient's own immune system to lead the fight. Sometimes these newer drugs are combined with traditional chemotherapy leading to an improved response rate."

Stein says the medical oncologists at GBMC work to stay abreast of the latest therapies by serving as investigators on clinical trials, taking leadership roles in national research and medical associations, and presenting their patients' diagnoses at a weekly tumor board meeting to gather ideas and input from their colleagues and other cancer specialists.

"This collaborative environment helps our medical oncologists focus on the precise and most effective therapy to help our patients," says Stein. "With so many new therapies approved by the FDA, patients treated at GBMC can rest assured that their physicians have more options than ever to treat their cancer."

With even more new drugs awaiting approval, the future continues to look bright for cancer treatment. "There are now hundreds of targeted therapies and immunotherapies in the research pipeline, and I expect that approval rate will only accelerate," Dr. Donegan says.

But there's one hitch, adds Dr. Donegan: To get FDA approval, drugs must undergo rigorous testing through clinical trials, but fewer than 10 percent of cancer patients choose to participate.

"If more patients were to participate in clinical trials, we would ultimately see a more rapid approval of those drugs proven to be effective. I encourage every patient to at least consider clinical trial participation when one is available," Dr. Donegan says.

He adds that GBMC has a very active clinical trials program that brings new treatment options to its patients long before FDA approval.


"At GBMC, we aim to provide highly personalized cancer care for all of our patients," Dr. Donegan says. "This involves a team approach, where caregivers of all types collaborate in a small and close-knit setting. Not only do we incorporate many of these new and exciting medications, but we also are forever mindful of our patients' physical, emotional and spiritual needs."

— Joe Yogerst for Greater Baltimore Medical Center