New drug offers hope to bladder cancer patients

There was a time when Lee Eric Newton thought he only had months to live. Diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2010, he'd undergone chemotherapy but the cancer spread to his brain.

With dwindling options, the 51-year-old found a trial of a new immunotherapy drug called atezolizumab.

"All of a sudden my tumors started to drop in size," Newton told CBS News.

Dr. Matt Galsky, Director of Genitourinary Medical Oncology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, explained that the drug works by tearing down the protective layers around the tumors.

"What these drugs do is pull back that shield and allow the immune system to recognize that the cancer is foreign and attack it," he said.

It's the first new treatment for metastatic bladder cancer in 30 years.

Each year, an estimated 74,000 adults -- the majority of whom are men -- are diagnosed with bladder cancer in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. The disease causes about 16,000 deaths annually.

Today, the drug company Roche Holding, the maker of atezolizumab, released what it called encouraging results around the drug's mid-stage trial of patients with locally advanced or metastatic bladder cancer.

According to a statement, use of the drug resulted in an average overall survival of 7.9 months in the overall study population. Participants with a higher expression of PD-L1 -- a protein believed to play a major role in suppressing the immune system -- appeared to benefit most, with an average survival of 11.4 months.

The therapy was generally well tolerated with common side effects of fatigue and small rashes. It showed a continued response rate in those who initially took to it.

The drug is not currently approved to treat bladder cancer, but the FDA recently granted it a "Breakthrough Therapy" designation to get it approved faster.

While atezolizumab doesn't work for everyone, Newton's been on the drug for more than a year. His cancer is stable and he's looking to the future.

"I didn't look a month to 2 months or 3 months in advance," he said. "I couldn't plan that far ahead, and I'm now planning to see my daughter graduate from high school."

Smoking causes about half of all bladder cancers, and Newton has a message for those who light up.

"I used to joke around as kids and we'd say, yeah, we're gonna quit once we get cancer or die," he said. "That's when we quit. But it's not a joke anymore once you get cancer."