The FDA announced its approval of Keytruda today in a press release. The drug is the first of its kind -- utilizing a patient's own autoimmune system to combat the disease.
The ability of a malignant tumor to metastasize and spread throughout the body is enabled by proteins that essentially ward off the body's own autoimmune response, limiting the body's ability to quash the growth in its infancy. Keytruda thwarts one of those proteins, PD-1, and empowers the immune system to attack the cancer cells.
"This is really opening up a whole new avenue of effective therapies previously not available," said Dr. Louis M. Weiner, director of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, in the District of Columbia, told the New York Times. "It allows us to see a time when we can treat many dreaded cancers without resorting to cytotoxic chemotherapy."
Researchers say the drug's mechanism could eventually be used to attack other types of cancer. The drug showed promise in fighting both lung cancer and kidney cancer in early trials.
"It's very exciting because it's a major step forward," Tim Turnham, executive director of the D.C.-based Melanoma Research Foundation, told Bloomberg. "Certainly, the immunotherapy drug approach is the first time people will begin to use the word cure."
Keytruda is one of a few immunotherapy drugs on the market, but it's the first to address the action of the PD-1 protein. With the green-light from the feds, Merck beat out several other drug companies developing similar anti-PD-1 drugs.