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Immunotherapy – Let Your Body Get the Job Done

By: Medix team

There are many kinds of treatments for cancer; surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Each of these treatments attack the cancer directly. Only Immunotherapy, the newest and most innovative form of treatment helps the body fight the disease on its own

Immunotherapy drugs work in a number of different ways. Some interact with immune-checkpoints, a kind of monitoring mechanism built into our immune system.


T-Cells are white blood cells that are supposed to attack damaged or foreign cells like cancer cells. Unfortunately, their activity can sometimes run into interference that prevents them from doing their job (e.g. certain mutations associated with cancer). Various forms of Immunotherapy circumvent these interferences, allowing the T-cells to work properly, and eradicate diseases.


Here are 3 examples of drugs that work in this way:

  1. KEYTRUDA – (Pembrolizumab) has been approved by the FDA for Melanoma patients, Head & Neck Cancers, and Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer patients that have not responded to other treatments. One should remember that Lung Cancer is responsible for a third of cancer deaths in Hong Kong.
  2. YERVOY – (Ipilimumab) has been authorized by the FDA for treatment of Metastatic Melanoma.
  3. TECENTRIQ - Atezolimumab has been authorized by the FDA for Bladder Cancer and Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.


Is this it? Have we cured cancer?

Immunotherapy is indeed making a difference. It has achieved some impressive results in treating advanced cancers, improving quality of life and causing few side effects. However, at this point Immunotherapy is not appropriate for all patients for a number of reasons:


First, cancers may look alike but in reality they are very different. Not all tumors carry the same antigens that the drugs are meant to counteract. Meaning Immunotherapy won’t work for all types of cancers.


Secondly, Immunotherapy is usually given as a final line of treatment after all other options have been exhausted. This means that oftentimes, a patient receiving treatment has a weak immune system to start  with. Having a compromised immune system as a result of previous treatments, significantly lowers survival rates. As such, the timing of the treatment is crucial.


Finally, price is an issue as well. Immunotherapy drugs are extremely expensive. Mostly, these drugs cost around ten thousand USD dollars every three weeks. Private Health Insurers globally will usually only cover Immunotherapy drugs that have been approved by the FDA.


In many cases, the best way to get treated with Immunotherapy is enrolling in a clinical trial run by a university teaching hospital.


Where can I find out about current clinical trials?

Various Medical Researchers in HK are currently participating in international trials on Immunotherapy drugs. You can always check with Prince of Wales Hospital and the Queen Mary Hospital.

Some of the trials being conducted (as of February 2017) are listed for you here:

It’s always worth visiting the online site of the U.S. National Institute of Health. It contains lists of trials being conducted around the world. In order to find Immunotherapy trials, search with these keywords: Immunotherapy, Monoclonal Antibodies, Cytokine Therapy, Vaccine therapy, Adoptive T-cell therapy, Oncolytic virus therapy and Gene therapy.  Once the right clinical trial is found exclusion and inclusion criteria will be addressed by the clinical team.


To summarize, while Immunotherapy works for some it is not yet applicable to all kinds of cancer. As a result, a clear understanding of all options, is crucial when dealing with any type of cancer. One should always consult with more than one specialist, and seek expert consultation for the specific type of cancer. Places to turn to are oncology departments of public university teaching hospitals which have expertise and run many clinical trials. Acting on this advice can often be a matter of life.


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