Keytruda Overview

Keytruda is a cancer medicine used to treat:

  • melanoma, a skin cancer,

  • non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), a type of lung cancer,

  • classical Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells,

  • urothelial cancer, a cancer of the bladder and urinary tract,

  • a cancer affecting the head and neck known as head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC),

  • renal cell carcinoma (a type of kidney cancer).

Keytruda is mainly used for cancers that are advanced, have spread to other parts of the body (metastatic) or are not responding to other treatments. In some cancers, it is only given to patients whose tumours produce high levels of a protein known as PD-L1.

Keytruda is also used to help prevent the cancer from coming back after patients had surgery to remove melanoma (adjuvant therapy).

Keytruda is used on its own except for NSCLC  and renal cell carcinoma where it is used in combination with other cancer medicines.

Keytruda contains the active substance pembrolizumab.

Keytruda is given as an infusion (drip) into a vein. When Keytruda is given alone the dose is either 200 mg every three weeks or 400 mg every six weeks. When it is given with other cancer medicines, the dose is always 200 mg every three weeks.

The doctor may delay doses if certain side effects occur or stop treatment altogether if side effects are severe. Before starting treatment, patients with NSCLC, previously untreated urothelial cancer or cancer of the head and neck should have tests to check their levels of PD-L1.

The medicine can only be obtained with a prescription and treatment must be started and supervised by a doctor experienced in the treatment of cancer. For more information about using Keytruda, see the package leaflet or contact your doctor or pharmacist.

The active substance in Keytruda, pembrolizumab, is a monoclonal antibody, a protein that has been designed to recognise and block a receptor (‘target’) called PD-1. Some cancers can make a protein (PD-L1) that combines with PD-1 to switch off the activity of certain cells of the immune system (the body’s natural defences) preventing them from attacking the cancer. By blocking PD-1, pembrolizumab stops the cancer switching off these immune cells, thereby increasing the immune system’s ability to kill the cancer cells.

Skin cancer

Keytruda can delay worsening of melanoma and improve survival. Results from a study of 540 previously treated patients with melanoma showed that 2 years after start of treatment, the disease had not worsened in 16% of patients treated with Keytruda compared with less than 1% of patients treated with chemotherapy.

A second study looked at 834 patients with melanoma who received either Keytruda or another medicine, ipilimumab. Patients treated with Keytruda lived for up to 5.6 months without their disease getting worse compared with 2.8 months with ipilimumab. Also, up to 74% of patients treated with Keytruda lived for at least 12 months after the start of their treatment compared with 59% of patients on ipilimumab.

A third study in 1,019 patients who had had surgery and who were at high risk for their cancer coming back compared Keytruda to placebo (a dummy treatment). After one and a half years of treatment, 72% of patients on Keytruda were still disease-free compared with 54% of patients on placebo.

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

Keytruda is also effective in delaying worsening of the disease and improving survival in patients with NSCLC that tested positive for the PD-L1 protein.

In a study looking at around 1,000 previously treated patients, patients lived longer with Keytruda given alone (around 11 months) than with another cancer medicine called docetaxel (around 8 months) and the period during which the disease did not get worse was around 4 months with both treatments. Keytruda was more effective in patients who tested strongly for PD-L1, with these patients living for 15 months on average, 5 months of which without their disease worsening.

In a second lung cancer study of 305 patients whose tumours tested strongly for PD-L1 who had not been treated before, patients on Keytruda lived for around 10 months without their disease getting worse compared with 6 months in patients receiving platinum-based chemotherapy.

Keytruda is also effective in combination treatment of a type of NSCLC known as ‘non-squamous’ cancer, based on the type of cancer cells involved. In a study of 616 patients with non-squamous NSCLC that had spread, 69% of patients taking Keytruda with pemetrexed and platinum chemotherapy were alive at 11 months, compared with less than half of patients who had only pemetrexed and platinum chemotherapy. In addition, patients who had Keytruda treatment lived on average for 8.8 months without the disease getting worse compared with 4.9 months for patients who were not given Keytruda.

In a further study of 559 patients with ‘squamous’ NSCLC that had spread, patients given Keytruda with carboplatin and paclitaxel or nab-paclitaxel lived on average for 15.9 months compared with 11.3 months for patients given placebo with carboplatin and paclitaxel or nab-paclitaxel. Patients in the Keytruda group lived on average for around 6 months without their disease getting worse compared with 4.8 months for patients in the placebo group.

Hodgkin lymphoma

Keytruda partially or completely clears cancer cells in classical Hodgkin lymphoma that has not improved or had returned after treatment with brentuximab vedotin, with or without an autologous stem cell transplantation.

In a main study of 210 patients, Keytruda produced a complete or partial remission (clearing) of the cancer in 145 patients (69%); a complete remission occurred in 47 (22%) of them, meaning they no longer had any signs of cancer. The average time that patients lived without their disease getting worse again was around 11 months.

Urothelial cancer

Keytruda improves survival of patients with urothelial cancer. A study looked at 542 patients previously treated with platinum-based medicines who received either Keytruda or another cancer medicine chosen by the doctor (paclitaxel, docetaxel or vinflunine). Patients treated with Keytruda lived on average around 10 months compared with around 7 months with the other cancer medicines. Keytruda did not delay worsening of the disease compared with the other cancer medicines (time to disease worsening was 2 and 3 months respectively).

In a second study of 370 patients who could not be treated with cisplatin-containing medicines, Keytruda produced a complete or partial remission (clearing) of the cancer in 108 patients (29%); a complete remission occurred in 30 (8%) of them, meaning they no longer had any signs of cancer.

Head and neck cancer

Keytruda is also effective in improving survival of patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) that had spread or come back. In a study of 495 patients, patients treated with Keytruda who had high levels of PD-L1 lived on average for 11.6 months while those taking standard cancer treatments lived for 6.6 months.

Kidney cancer

In a study of 861 patients with renal cell carcinoma, patients given Keytruda in combination with an already authorised medicine for renal cell carcinoma, axitinib, lived for around 15 months without their disease getting worse, compared with 11 months for patients who received treatment with another renal cell carcinoma medicine, sunitinib, which was used as a control treatment. Keytruda is also effective in improving survival of patients with renal cell cancer. At 18 months, 81% of the patients given the combination were alive, compared with 71% in the sunitinib group.

Keytruda is effective at improving survival or delaying the worsening of disease in patients with advanced cancers or cancers that have spread or come back. In some patients, tumours have to produce a high level of PD-L1 for the medicine to be effective.

Keytruda is also effective in preventing melanoma from coming back in patients who have had surgery.

The side effects with this medicine are manageable and are similar to those of various other cancer treatments.

The European Medicines Agency decided that Keytruda’s benefits are greater than its risks and it can be authorised for use in the EU.

The company that markets Keytruda will provide information packs for doctors who are expected to prescribe Keytruda on how the medicine should be used and how to manage side effects, particularly side effects on the immune system. Information on the risks of being given donor stem cell transplants after Keytruda treatment will also be included. The company will provide an alert card for patients with information on the risks of the medicine, as well as instructions on when to contact their doctor if they experience side effects.

In addition, the company will provide the final results of studies with Keytruda to confirm the long-term benefits of the medicine. Moreover, the company will carry out analyses to better understand which patients are likely to benefit most from treatment with Keytruda.

Recommendations and precautions to be followed by healthcare professionals and patients for the safe and effective use of Keytruda have also been included in the summary of product characteristics and the package leaflet.

As for all medicines, data on the use of Keytruda are continuously monitored. Side effects reported with Keytruda are carefully evaluated and any necessary action taken to protect patients.

Keytruda received a marketing authorisation valid throughout the EU on 17 July 2015.

What are the risks associated with Keytruda?

The side effects of Keytruda are mostly related to the activity of the immune system, which may cause inflammation of body organs and tissues and can be serious, although most side effects resolve with appropriate treatment or on stopping Keytruda. The most common side effects of Keytruda given alone (which may affect more than 1 in 10 people) are tiredness, rash, itching, nausea (feeling sick) and diarrhea.

Owner of copyright and other intellectual property rights to European Medicines Agency

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