Harnessing the Immune System to Fight Cancer
In the NY Times Denise Grady has an optimistic report on the fight against cancer:
Steve Cara expected to sail through the routine medical tests required to increase his life insurance in October 2014. But the results were devastating. He had lung cancer, at age 53. It had begun to spread, and doctors told him it was inoperable.
A few years ago, they would have suggested chemotherapy. Instead, his oncologist, Dr. Matthew D. Hellmann of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, recommended an experimental treatment: immunotherapy. Rather than attacking the cancer directly, as chemo does, immunotherapy tries to rally the patient’s own immune system to fight the disease.
Uncertain, Mr. Cara sought a second opinion. A doctor at another major hospital read his scans and pathology report, then asked what Dr. Hellmann had advised. When the doctor heard the answer, Mr. Cara recalled, “he closed up the folder, handed it back to me and said, ‘Run back there as fast as you can.’”
Many others are racing down the same path. Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer, long a medical dream, is becoming a reality. Remarkable stories of tumors melting away and terminal illnesses going into remissions that last years — backed by solid data — have led to an explosion of interest and billions of dollars of investments in the rapidly growing field of immunotherapy. Pharmaceutical companies, philanthropists and the federal government’s “cancer moonshot” program are pouring money into developing treatments. Medical conferences on the topic are packed.
All this has brought new optimism to cancer doctors — a sense that they have begun tapping into a force of nature, the medical equivalent of splitting the atom.
“This is a fundamental change in the way that we think about cancer therapy,” said Dr. Jedd Wolchok, chief of melanoma and immunotherapeutics services at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
Hundreds of clinical trials involving immunotherapy, alone or combined with other treatments, are underway for nearly every type of cancer. “People are asking, waiting, pleading to get into these trials,” said Dr. Arlene Siefker-Radtke, an oncologist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who specializes in bladder cancer.
The immune system — a network of cells, tissues and biochemicals that they secrete — defends the body against viruses, bacteria and other invaders. But cancer often finds ways to hide from the immune system or block its ability to fight. Immunotherapy tries to help the immune system recognize cancer as a threat, and attack it.
Doctors tried a primitive version of immunotherapy against cancer more than 100 years ago. It sometimes worked remarkably well, but often did not, and they did not understand why. Eventually, radiation and chemotherapy eclipsed it.
Researchers are now focused on two promising types of immunotherapy. One . . .