Doctors have found a disturbing downside to some powerful new drugs that harness the immune system to fight cancer: In rare cases, they may cause potentially fatal heart damage, especially when used together.
"The problem is, no one has this on their radar," so patients are not routinely checked for it, said Dr. Javid Moslehi, head of a Vanderbilt University clinic specializing in heart risks from cancer therapies.
He led a team of experts who reported Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine about two patients who died of heart trouble two weeks after receiving their first doses of two Bristol-Myers Squibb drugs, Opdivo and Yervoy, for the deadly skin cancer melanoma.
Two similar drugs also are on the market, and the study leaders believe they might pose heart risks, too.
"My sense is that this is a class effect, not limited to one drug," Moslehi said.
The risks do not negate the huge benefits of these relatively new types of drugs, doctors stress. Called checkpoint inhibitors, they have transformed treatment of several types of cancer by helping the immune system see and attack tumors.