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Immunotherapy: Fighting Cancer from Within

Publication: Austin Medical Times, Houston Medical Times

In the fight against cancer, chemotherapy and radiation have been the primary “go-to” treatment options for decades, and a significant amount of research has focused on making these more effective.

Immunotherapy now is making its way to the forefront of cancer care thanks to advancements in medical technology and research – even though breakthrough experiments in this treatment method date back to the 1890s. Cancer researchers are just starting to scratch the surface of what may be one of the biggest revolutions in cancer treatment in our lifetimes: harnessing the immune system to help fight cancer.

Immunotherapy uses certain parts of a person’s immune system to attack cancer cells to stop or slow their growth or limit the cancer’s ability to spread. When used alone or in combination with other types of treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, immunotherapy has been shown to improve patient outcomes.

Unlocking the Power of the Human Immune System

In the late 1800s, New York physician Dr. William Coley discovered that some cancer patients benefited when their immune systems were “enhanced” with certain bacteria. Coley’s treatment concept faded as advances in chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery developed. However, in the last several decades, researchers returned to Coley’s intriguing idea to give the body’s immune system the boost it needs to fight cancer.

Vaccines, which are patient and cancer specific, have been developed for some forms of cancer. They may boost an immune system response or help prevent a future recurrence.

Some immunotherapy is not specific to a cancer type. Interleukins and interferons help the immune system resist cancer and viral infections, which has proven effective for some forms of cancer.

Other types of immunotherapy are more specific. Your body already makes antibodies to fight infections like the flu. Scientists are now designing antibodies to target specific antigens in cancer cells while not affecting healthy cells.

The Role of Clinical Trials

New breakthroughs, like immunotherapy, are successful only if there are patients who are willing to participate in the research. While immunotherapy is not currently available for all forms of cancer, the treatments that have been fully approved or are in clinical trials are radically changing cancer treatment – for the better.

Clinical trials that included Texas patients and physicians were instrumental in the development of a form of immunotherapy called CAR-T, or Chimeric Antigen Receptor T cell therapy. This personalized therapy involves engineering a patient’s own immune system’s blood cells – arming the cells, so to speak – to attack cancer cells.

During the complex procedure, doctors remove some of the patient’s T cells, a type of white blood cell, which are then genetically reprogrammed to identify and attack cancer. Weeks later, doctors then infuse the re-engineered cells back into the patient’s body.

Looking Toward the Horizon

The Food and Drug Administration first approved the new CAR-T therapy in 2017 for specific types of lymphoma and leukemia after its promising results during clinical trials.

Using the body’s own tools to fight cancer is opening up a new and exciting horizon in oncology. For example, immunotherapy led to the first new treatments for melanoma to be approved by the FDA in more than a decade. In some cases, immunotherapies can mean fewer unpleasant side effects for patients.

Research continues to examine the effectiveness of the new therapy for other forms of cancer. Through research and patient participation in trials, oncologists are rapidly discovering dramatically better ways to treat, diagnose, and prevent even the most aggressive forms of cancer.

This article appeared in the February 2021 issue of: