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Combination of Pembrolizumab & Chemotherapy Doubles Survival in Patients with Metastatic Lung Cancer

The immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab, when combined with chemotherapy, doubles survival in patients with non-squamous non-small cell lung cancer (NSNSCLC) lacking genetic changes in the EGFR or ALK genes, when compared to chemotherapy alone, according to an international phase III clinical trial.

Principal investigator Leena Gandhi, MD, PhD, director of the thoracic medical oncology program at Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Health and associate professor of medicine in the Division of Medical Oncology at NYU School of Medicine, presented these findings April 16 at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting in Chicago. The data from this study were simultaneously published online April 16 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

A total of 616 patients with untreated metastatic NSNSCLC without EGFR or ALK alterations, from 118 international sites, were randomly allocated for the trial—405 patients were treated with both pembrolizumab and platinum therapy plus pemetrexed, and 202 received platinum therapy plus pemetrexed with a saline placebo.

Response rates, overall survival, and progression-free survival rates were superior in the pembrolizumab and chemotherapy combination treatment group.

Dr. Leena Gandhi explains the results of a phase III clinical trial and its impact going forward in the treatment of non-squamous non-small cell lung cancer.

Of those treated with pembrolizumab and platinum plus pemetrexed, the risk of death was reduced by 51 percent, compared to those treated with platinum plus pemetrexed alone. Among patients treated with the combination therapy, the chance of progression or death was reduced by 48 percent. In other words, chance of overall and progression-free survival doubled.

“The data show that treatment with pembrolizumab and chemotherapy together is more effective than chemotherapy alone,” says Dr. Gandhi. “Using this combination therapy to treat patients with such an aggressive disease could be an important advance in keeping patients alive and well for longer.”

The risk of severe side effects was similar in both groups (67.2 percent in the combination group and 65.8 percent in the standard treatment group), although there was an increased risk of acute kidney injury with the combination treatment (5.2 percent vs. 0.5 percent). The most common side effects experienced by both groups were nausea, anemia, and fatigue.

Non-small cell lung cancer is the leading cause of all cancer death, in part because in the majority of cases, the cancer has already spread at the time of diagnosis. Pembrolizumab in combination with chemotherapy is FDA-approved to treat these patients, based on a previous phase II trial on which Dr. Gandhi was one of the lead investigators.

“Although some non-small cell lung cancer patients have increased benefit of targeted therapy or immunotherapy instead of chemotherapy, for some groups of patients with NSNSCLC, chemotherapy has been the standard treatment for more than 30 years,” Dr. Gandhi notes. “But for patients with NSNSLC without EGFR or ALK alterations, this study may suggest a new standard of care.”

Merck and Co. Inc., the manufacturer of pembrolizumab, funded this clinical trial and provided Dr. Gandhi and her colleagues with research support. Eli Lilly and Co. provided the pemetrexed chemotherapy for the trial.

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