Immunotherapy Offers Promise to Cancer Patients
The Nobel Prize is a big deal—a REALLY big deal. And this year, the Nobel Prize is especially meaningful to all of us at Illinois CancerCare (ILCC).
In recognition of their work in immunotherapy—which is a huge breakthrough in the treatment of cancer—the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James P. Allison (United States) and Tasuku Honjo (Japan).
But central and western Illinois have their own immunotherapy rock stars, too! The ILCC team is already using immunotherapy as a treatment option for patients who may benefit from it. Our healthcare providers aren’t happy to sit on the sidelines waiting for new innovations and life-saving therapies. Instead, our medical staff is actively involved in conducting research that brings new treatment options to current ILCC patients, while also paving the way for a future filled with less cancer and more survivors.
This innovative treatment is also referred to as immunologic therapy, biological therapy or biotherapy. You may have heard pharmaceutical commercials talk about biologics, which refers to the drugs themselves. Let’s take a look at what immunotherapy is, how it helps and what the future holds for this life-saving intervention.
To understand this type of treatment, we need to first review our immune system, which is a complex network of cells, organs and tissues that protect our bodies from infection in several ways. Safeguards include preventing germs from getting into our
bodies, destroying those that find their way in and monitoring our bodies for cancer cells.
When Good Cells Go Bad
Ordinarily, our cells stop growing at a certain point, but cancerous (malignant) cells continue to divide and grow unchecked. Another difference is that normal cells remain in the area of the body they started in, but cancer cells can invade nearby tissues and continue spreading (metastasize).
Our bodies have defensive cells (such as natural killer [NK] cells, dendritic cells and T cells) that can attack cancer, but they don’t always accomplish their mission. In these situations, your oncologist may recommend chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy, surgery or a combination of treatments to wipe out the malignant cells.
While these options remain appropriate and effective for many types of cancer, one key side effect with these treatments is that they can also kill normal cells or damage healthy tissue. In addition, surgery and a weakened immune system can put you at risk for infection.
Fortunately, research has found that immunotherapy can step in when your body isn’t able to obliterate the damaged cells on its own … but without many of the side effects of traditional treatments. The discoveries that led to the creation of immunotherapy is beyond thrilling for researchers, physicians and patients.
The Nobel Assembly states it best when they say, “By stimulating the inherent ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year’s Nobel Laureates (Drs. Allison and Honjo) have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.” It’s believed that immunotherapy accomplishes this by:
- stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells,
- preventing cancer from spreading (metastasizing)
- and/or boosting your own immune system’s ability to wipe out those nasty cancer cells.
How Does Immunotherapy Work?
Without getting too technical, researchers and oncologists know that cancer cells can be quite smart. A key function of our immune system is its ability to tell healthy cells and damaged cells apart, so it can attack the foreign cells while leaving the normal cells intact. This happens at “checkpoints” within our immune system.
But damaged cells can put the brakes on these immune system checkpoints, making them ineffective. In their ground-breaking work, Drs. Allison and Honjo demonstrated how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes can have a powerful impact on cancer treatment.
Known as checkpoint inhibitors, there are several types of immunotherapy available today. Each of the following types of treatment take a different approach to working with your immune system to rid your body of cancer cells:
- T cell therapy
- Monoclonal antibodies
- Colony stimulating factors (cytokines)
- Oncolytic virus therapy
- Cancer vaccines
- Non-specific immunotherapies
In addition to the primary goal of supporting your immune system in its fight against malignancies, immunotherapy has several other key benefits.
- When paired with other treatments, like chemotherapy, it may be able to produce a better outcome.
- Because this approach specifically targets your immune system (instead of all the cells in your body), patients often report fewer side effects.
- Your cancer may be less likely to come back—or you may experience a longer period of remission. This is due to the fact that immunotherapy “teaches” your immune system how to attack the cancer cells, so they’re prepared if the cells return. This is referred to as immunomemory.
Who Does This Help?
As with any aspect of cancer research, early findings and new treatments provide a benefit to very specific populations of cancer patients. But it usually doesn’t stop there—breakthrough results lay the groundwork for innovations that will serve larger groups of people.
In this case, current checkpoint inhibitors are being used with patients who have lung, kidney, bladder, and head and neck cancers, as well as those with melanoma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Currently available options include ipilimumab (Yervoy), pembrolizumab (Keytruda), nivolumab (Opdivo), atezolizumab (Tecentriq), avelumab (Bavencio) and durvalumab (Imfinzi).
People often ask if immunotherapy will work for breast cancer. Thus far, there aren’t any FDA-approved immunotherapy treatments for patients with breast cancer. However, this is definitely an area of intense research and we anticipate seeing continued improvements in breast cancer treatment options.
Every day, we are incredibly thankful for the opportunity to care for patients at ILCC. We are also extremely grateful that our group is committed to researching and conducting clinical trials on emerging treatments that may change the face of cancer forever. At Illinois CancerCare, we’re optimistic about the future of cancer treatment—and we’re proud to help drive that mission forward ever