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When they work, immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors can shrink cancers and, in some cases, eradicate tumors altogether. These drugs, which include Keytruda and Opdivo, are prescribed to hundreds of thousands of patients a year for dozens of different kinds of cancer — but they only work for a minority of them. Most patients ultimately end up progressing or relapsing.

In two separate clinical trials published in Science on Thursday, researchers found that adding a drug called a JAK inhibitor created an unexpected synergy with checkpoint inhibitor therapy. The combination helped a majority of patients respond to the immunotherapy and, in one trial, overcome resistance to checkpoint inhibitors.


In that study, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute and the University of Minnesota used a similar pairing to treat Hodgkin lymphoma patients whose disease had already progressed or relapsed after checkpoint inhibitor therapy. Ten out of 19 participants responded to the drug, with six achieving a complete response. In the other study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania gave a combination therapy to patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer as a first-line treatment. Typically, the response rate of these patients to Keytruda alone is about 45%, but 67% of patients responded to the combination.

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