Cancer is a word no one wants to hear regarding their health, but the reality is almost everybody knows someone that has or has had cancer. The statistics for 2012 are high, with an estimated 1,638,910 newly diagnosed patients and 577,190 deaths resulting from all forms of cancer. While the numbers are grim, research on many fronts has resulted in prolonging the life expectancy of terminal patients and saving countless lives.
In fact, the new or somewhat new arsenal against cancer is immunotherapy – training a patient’s own immune system to destroy the cells. Although this observation was made more than a century ago it is just now showing the full promise of the therapy.
Immunotherapy is also called biologic therapy or biotherapy; in cancer it is used by stimulating different components of your immune system or adding man made immune system proteins so they can attack the cancer cells. This observation was first made in 1891 by William Coley, MD, a surgeon from New York who noticed some of the cancer patients that were getting infected after their surgery showed some improvement. This led to him treating his cancer patients by infecting them with a bacterium which later became known as the Coley toxins. The body reacted to the infection with a stronger immune response which in turn helped some of the cancer patients.
Fast forward a century or so and we are where we began, but with the added benefit of infinitely more understanding about the human immune system. Disorders such as AIDS and the HIV virus have shown researchers invaluable insight into how the body reacts when it is being attacked. This and other data eventually led researchers to visit Coley’s therapy with a new pair of eyes.
Immunotherapy is used as a single therapy or in combination with other types of treatment to address a particular cancer - and attack only the cancers cells. Unlike radiation which poisons the entire body and has a multitude of side effects the precision of immunotherapy will be welcomed by patient going through systemic treatments. This however doesn’t mean radiation will be excluded from some immunotherapy treatments.
Immunotherapy is classified into three parts:
- Cancer vaccines – that could possibly help prevent or treat cancer
- Monoclonal antibodies – man-made proteins or antibodies that can be designed to attack different parts of the cancer cells
- Non-specific immunotherapies – this therapy boosts the overall immune system which may result in the body being able to fight the cancer
The first cellular immunotherapy was approved for prostate cancer in 2010 and today there are many promising clinical trials in different phases under way.
Immunotherapy has great potential against some forms of cancers and therein lies the problem with every new hope to cure the disease. There will not be one magic bullet that will cure every known cancer, but each victory over a particular form of cancer brings researchers closer to finding out how to defeat it once and for all.
Edited by Jamie Epstein