When the news broke on Monday, Dec. 7 that Jimmy Carter, who recently disclosed he had a serious and likely-fatal form of cancer, suddenly had ‘no evidence of cancer,’ Carter-watchers went a little crazy.
Some people, of course, were thrilled to hear that the former U.S. president was no longer at death’s door.
Others, especially strong pro-Israel activists were aghast when they read in a widely-circulated news article, that Keytruda, the drug credited for Carter’s health turnaround, was developed in Israel. Carter is widely-reviled as a virulent and relentless basher of Israel.
A 2014 article in YNet described Keytruda as an “Israeli breakthrough.”
Some people were outraged that Carter, a supporter of the BDS movement to boycott Israeli goods, was cured of cancer by a drug he would encourage others to boycott.
That drug, Keytruda, is indeed a breakthrough drug, but it was not developed in Israel.
This new drug, distributed by the American drug company Merck and developed by Nanostring Technologies, based in Seattle, Washington, became widely available last year, although it has been used in clinical trials for a number of years, according to Dr. Rene Rothstein Rubin, the director of the Cancer Center at Hahnemann University Hospital, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Rubin explained that Keytruda is a form of immune therapy, and is a “program cell death” inhibitor. It works by “inhibiting the cancer cells from proliferating, and by kickstarting the body’s immune response to fight the cancer cells.”
It does that by enabling the body’s immune system to break down the “protective coating” which encase cancer cells. Cancer cells don’t know when to stop reproducing.
Rubin explained: “if you have a cut on your hand, your skin cells reproduce until the two cut sides meet. Cancer cells don’t get the signal to ‘turn off.’ The immune therapy utilized in Keytruda allows the body’s immune cells to block the cancer cells from continuing to reproduce.”
Rubin described Keytruda and the immune therapy approach to cancers as “very exciting. It works by using the power of our own immune system to kill the cancer cells.”
Right now Keytruda is approved for melanoma and lung cancer. Carter has stage 4 melanoma — the most serious stage. Keytruda is also now in clinical trials, in the pipeline to be approved for renal cell cancer. Clinical trials for Keytruda were carried out at Tel Aviv’s Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer Medical Center in Israel, as well as in other places. That is where the confusion arose about the drug having been developed in Israel.
Rubin said the advance made with the perfection of immune therapy is huge, and has energized the oncologic community. Further advances in immune therapy are expected to eventually provide a huge breakthrough for genetically-transmitted cancers, like certain kinds of breast cancer, such as the BRAC1 and BRAC2 breast cancers.
Another benefit of the immune therapy approach, as opposed to chemotherapy, is that the side effects are relatively minor, compared to those with chemotherapy. “In fact,” Rubin explains, “the immune therapy works in the exact opposite way, and so has the opposite effects, including side effects, from chemotherapy, which suppresses the body’s immune system.”
But as enthusiastic as Rubin was about Keytruda, she repeatedly cautioned “it is not a cure. Instead, what looks like a cure simply means there is no discernible evidence of the disease right now.”
So, although test results for Jimmy Carter reveal that right now he is cancer free, he has not been cured. And the drug that did not cure him? It was tested, but not developed, in Israel.