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Cancer Immune Therapy Headed For More Widespread Use

By Karen Weintraub

Cancer immune therapy — an approach that harnesses the body’s own disease-fighting system — is saving more patients with more types of cancer, and scientists are getting better at predicting who will benefit, studies released over the last few days show.

Among the findings presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting, ongoing in Chicago:

— Newer immune-therapy drugs appear to be as or more effective than the first-generation drug, with fewer side effects.

— Genetic fingerprints may help determine which patients will benefit the most from immune therapy.

— Immune therapy may be as or more effective than chemotherapy for some cancer types.

Three years ago this week, cancer immune therapy jumped to prominence when studies revealed that it could extend the lives of people with lung cancer, the biggest cancer killer.

Last weekend, at the oncology conference — one of the biggest in cancer care — more studies showed the breadth and possibility of immune therapy.

Malignant melanoma (Prakash H Muddegowda/Flickr)

Malignant melanoma (Prakash H Muddegowda/Flickr)

For a century, researchers tried to unleash the power of the immune system against cancer. How could a system that fought off terrible viruses and bacteria be so useless in the face of the body’s own cells?

The potential promise the new wave of therapies is that once the immune system takes control of a tumor, it can search out cells throughout the body, and keep the cancer in check indefinitely.

In studies of melanoma, for instance, where this new approach to immune therapy research began, those patients who responded well to the treatment have survived a nearly universally fatal disease for more than a decade.

About 15 percent of patients with advanced lung cancer are still alive three years later, according to other research.

“The trajectory for some of these patients are that they’re going to be cured, which obviously is pretty incredible for someone with advanced stage cancer,” said Naiyer Rizvi, director of thoracic oncology and immunotherapeutics at Columbia University Medical Center.

Still, treatment with immune therapies remains largely experimental — “promising” rather than proven approaches.

Supercharging Immune Cells

It took the insight of a Texas researcher named James Allison, now at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, to make the difference. He realized that rather than supercharging immune cells to fight cancer — which had been tried in vain for decades — researchers needed to release the brakes cancer had placed on the immune system. Once this hold was lifted, the immune system could do its job. Continue reading