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A New Approach for Fighting Cancer: Treat the immune system, not the tumor

11/3/2014 | By:

"Science", a world renowned scientific journal, has selected cancer immunotherapy as the medical breakthrough of the year for 2013

You better remember the name “immunotherapy” because it was named “The breakthrough of the year for 2013” by the editors of “Science”.

Despite the fact that the implications of this type of therapy are not fully understood, and the treatment only applies to a small number of cancer patients, the editors of this world renowned journal decided to select immunotherapy for the title. Why?

The journal’s editors believe that immunotherapy has passed the test due to a number of clinical trials which have proven the hidden potential in this treatment modality. These results, coupled with stories of lives extended, have swayed many skeptics: the woman with a grapefruit-size tumor in her lung from melanoma, alive and healthy 13 years later; the 6-year-old near death from leukemia, now in third grade and in remission; the man with metastatic kidney cancer whose disease continued fading away even after treatment stopped.

As the anecdotes coalesce into data, there's another layer, too; a sense of paradigms shifting. Immunotherapy marks an entirely different way of treating cancer - by targeting the immune system, not the tumor itself.

Up until now, the conventional way of treating cancer was trying to attack the tumor; this was done either by surgically removing the tumor when possible, by administering systemic chemotherapy which essentially attacks fast growing cells, cancerous or otherwise, or by applying high doses of radiation to the area of the tumor. Contrarily, immunotherapy involves tweaking and influencing the immune system, either by stimulating it to create more white blood cells, or assisting it with targeting cancerous tissue thus supporting it in battling the cancer. The revelation that another dimension to the fight against cancer exists is what led "Science" to name immunotherapy a breakthrough.

The first steps were made thanks to the discovery of James Alison, an American cancer immunologist, who found a protein receptor in a kind of white blood cells called T cells, which puts the brakes on these cells, preventing them from launching full-out attacks on disease.

Bristol-Myers Squibb, an international pharmaceutical company, used a drug which counteracts this process, thus strengthening the immune system and reported that patients with metastatic melanoma lived an average of 10 months with the treatment, compared with 6 months without it. It was the first time any treatment had extended life in advanced melanoma in a randomized trial. Nearly a quarter of participants survived at least 2 years. Based on the same logic, a number of other drugs are being developed which have a higher success rate and are associated with less side effects.

Today, both the FDA in America and NICE have approved Bristol-Myers Squibb's immunotherapy drug, called Ipilimumab, for metastatic melanoma. Last year they reported that of 1,800 melanoma patients treated with Ipilimumab, 22% were still alive 3 years later.

Today’s immunotherapy doesn’t help everyone, and researchers are constantly trying to understand why in order to create more potent treatments. Even in the state of uncertainty surrounding certain aspects of immunotherapy one thing is certain, one book has closed, and a new one has opened.

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