Health And Money: The New Drug Used By Jimmy Carter

by August 21, 2015
Photo courtesy of the Carter Center

Photo courtesy of the Carter Center

At an extraordinarily candid news conference, President Jimmy Carter revealed Thursday that the liver cancer for which he was treated earlier this month has spread to his brain.

And, he immediately began treatment with a drug that’s new to the market. Carter is receiving pembrolizumab, better known by its brand name, Keytruda, according to the Washington Post.

It is part of a class of drugs that are aimed at the immune system, helping it to gang up on the cancer cells.

The theory is that by boosting the immune system, the body will ward off the growth of more cancer cells, while the radiation that Carter is also receiving will attack his existing melanoma.

The Food and Drug Administration approved Keytruda only last year.

It is made the pharmaceutical giant Merck. According to the Post, the drug is designed to block a cellular pathway known as PD-1, which hinders the immune system’s ability to attack melanoma cells.

According to the Post story,

“We’re just taking away the brakes on the immune system,” said Antoni Ribas, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles and the lead investigator of a crucial study of Keytruda, who added that the drug tends to have far fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy.

In just a short period, these immuno-boosters have become a fourth level of cancer treatment, along with radiation, chemotherapy and surgery.

They are expensive. Keytruda costs about $150,000 per year, the Post says. But, researchers are hopeful that if treatments go well, Keytruda could be used to fight bladder cancer, breast cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, head and neck tumors and other types of the disease.

For story ideas, see if local cancer centers are using Keytruda. Talk to doctors and cancer patients. Who is most likely to be prescribed the treatment? How do people afford it? Are insurance companies willing to cover it?

You can see President Carter’s news conference here.