Opdivo: A Novel Treatment for Cancer

By Awais Zia

A new drug called Opdivo (Nivolumab) has entered the market for treatment of various types of cancer. Opdivo is an antibody and a type of immunotherapy that provides a promising future for cancer treatment. The FDA has now approved Opdivo for skin cancer, lung cancer, lymphoma, kidney cancer, and head and neck cancer. 

            Opdivo takes advantage of the body’s immune system to attack and kill cancer cells. When cancer forms in a person’s body, the immune system recognizes it as a threat to the body and attempts to fight it. However, cancer cells have specific receptors on their cell membrane that interact with T cells of the immune system and block them from fighting cancer cells. This prevents the immune system from getting rid of cancer. Scientists have recognized this phenomenon and have attempted to take advantage of the immune system’s capability in fighting cancer. Consequently, a new drug Opdivo has been produced that takes advantage of this principle. Once Opdivo enters the body, it binds to receptors present on T cells that are used by cancer cells when blocking the immune system from fighting cancer. By binding to these T cell receptors, Opdivo blocks cancer cells from interacting with T cells. In other words, Opdivo blocks the essential step used by cancer cells to halt the body’s immune system. This allows T cells to recognize other receptors on cancer cells and initiate the killing process.

            Over the years, several clinical trials with Opdivo have been conducted on patients with various types of cancer. Opdivo has shown to be an effective drug in reducing cancer from the body, either by itself or when given in combination with another anti-cancer drug. In a study on advanced melanoma, Opdivo given in combination with a conventional anti-cancer drug reduced cancer by 80% or more.  In another melanoma study, the risk of death was decreased by 58% compared to a conventional anti-cancer drug among patients who were previously untreated with advanced melanoma. In a study on advanced squamous non-small-cell lung cancer, Opdivo reduced the risk of death by 41%, increased the median survival rate by 3.2 months, and doubled the 1-year survival rate.  Opdivo has also shown promise for patients with Hodgkin lymphoma, in which the drug showed an overall response rate of 87% and increased survival by 86% at 24 weeks without progression of the disease. For advanced renal cell carcinoma, Opdivo increased the overall survival by 5.4 months compared to a conventional anti-cancer drug. For squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, Opdivo increased the median overall survival by 7.5 months compared to conventional chemotherapy. Regarding side effects, Opdivo has either been comparable or shown reduced side effects than other anti-cancer drugs currently in the market. However, Opdivo has the potential to cause some serious side effects as well.

            These studies show that Opdivo possess the power to enable the immune system to fight cancer cells and consequently increase patients’ overall survival rates. They also show Opdivo’s ability to fight off many different types of cancer. It is possible that this drug would get approved for more cancer types in the future as more investigations are conducted. Currently, patients with melanoma, non-small-cell lung cancer, renal cell carcinoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, and squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck can benefit from this drug.