Immunotherapy: The Future of Cancer Treatment?

July 19, 2016 1:00 PM

For certain types of cancer, immunotherapy has been shown to improve patient survival. Here’s what you need to know about the science today and in the future.

Immunotherapy, or the use of the body’s own immune system to fight cancer, is the new buzzword in cancer care.

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Simply put, immunotherapy is a growing area of cancer research and treatment that uses the body’s immune system to fight or kill cancer cells. Some immunotherapies work by marking cancer cells so they can’t hide from treatments. Other immunotherapies help strengthen your immune system so it can detect and destroy cancer cells.

Recently, this approach has been introduced for the treatment of advanced cancer and cancer that is refractory, or difficult to treat. As a result, I have received multiple phone calls from patients and family members over the past few months asking about the latest treatments using this new therapeutic option.

How cancer immunotherapy works

The American Society of Clinical Oncology tells us that immunotherapy may work by:

  • Stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells

  • Stopping cancer from spreading to other parts of the body

  • Helping the immune system destroy cancer cells

Types of immunotherapy include:

  • Monoclonal antibodies, or antibodies produced in a laboratory that can target a specific cancer protein. Some patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia or breast cancer benefit from this type of therapy.

  • Nonspecific immunotherapies. These don’t target cancer; instead, they stimulate the immune system in a general way. The use of cytokines is an example. These chemicals, produced by certain immune system cells, are used to treat some blood cancers, kidney cancer and melanoma.

  • Cancer vaccines. These stimulate or restore the immune system’s abilities. Some are preventive. For example, a vaccine can prevent infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to a number of cancers, including cervical and oral.

  • Oncolytic virus therapy, an experimental biological therapy for the direct destruction of cancer cells. This therapy alters a virus in the laboratory so it will attack cancer cells. One such virus is being used to treat melanomas that can’t be removed surgically.

Treatment with immunotherapy is administered several ways:

  • Intravenous therapy, going directly into a vein and administered at a hospital or clinic

  • Pills or shots a patient can take at home

  • Cream rubbed on the skin

  • Intravesical therapy, in which a doctor uses a catheter to deliver liquid drug directly into the bladder to treat bladder cancer

Immunotherapy: Which cancers it helps fight

At this time, immunotherapy seems to be best used for advanced forms of melanoma, bladder cancer, lung cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, head and neck cancers, and kidney cancer. Significant data support the use of these treatments for improved long-term survival, because most immunotherapies bolster the immune system to combat tumor cells.

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Most people receiving immunotherapy today have advanced cancer and are being treated at specialized cancer centers. The goal for these patients, whether participating in a clinical trial or not, is to extend life, rather than to cure the cancer.

So, yes, immunotherapy is new and exciting and has opened up the field of cancer care. But in spite of successes for specific types of cancer, many other cancers, including prostate and ovarian, so far don’t respond to it.

One of our own researchers has discovered a possible reason some people don’t respond. This type of research may open the door for many more cancer patients to benefit from effective immunotherapy treatments.

Overall, there is a lot of work still to be done in the laboratory and through clinical trials before researchers can extend immunotherapy’s benefits more broadly.

Immunotherapy of the future may well change how we treat many kinds of cancer and at an earlier stage — or even prevent it.