After decades of dominating cancer treatment protocols across the globe, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are facing increased competition from a fourth treatment option: immunotherapy. Miami Cancer Institute’s CEO and executive medical director Dr. Micahel Zinner notes that cancer treatments traditionally involve using surgery to remove as much of the cancerous tumor as possible followed by chemotherapy or radiation to kill off the remaining cancer cells.
While these treatments aren’t fully effective and often have many negative side effects, they have saved millions of lives worldwide over the decades. However, some pundits are now referring to immunotherapy, a relatively new cancer treatment that leverages a patient’s immune system to fight cancer, as the “fourth pillar” of cancer treatment.
Unlike chemotherapy or radiation therapy, which introduce toxic substances or high doses of radiation into the body to kill off cancer cells, immunotherapy taps into the body’s inherent disease-fighting capabilities and bolsters the immune system’s ability to fight cancer cells. Immunotherapy teaches the immune system to find and kill cancer cells, leaving it more equipped to deal with cancer tumors. Or as Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) chief science officer Julian Adams, Ph.D., puts it, immunotherapy “awakens the immune system.”
Zinner says targeted cancer therapies started gaining prominence around 20 to 25 years ago once scientists determined that they could use specific drugs to target certain cancer mechanisms. This groundbreaking discovery led to the creation of personalized care and finally allowed immunotherapy, which had been in development for nearly half a century, to “blossom.”
Cancers often evade the immune system by secreting chemicals that make them virtually invisible, NYU Langone Medical Center clinical professor of medicine Dr. Marc Siegel explains, making them impossible to detect. Checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapies work by blocking the proteins that make it impossible for the immune system to fight cancer cells, Siegel said, eliminating their ability to disappear from the immune system’s radar.
The other type of immunotherapy (including CAR-T cell therapy) targets abnormal or mutated proteins located on the surface of a cancerous tumor that are involved in tumor growth. CAR-T cell therapy involves extracting immune T cells from cancer patients, modifying them in a laboratory to make them more effective at spotting and killing cancer cells, and then injecting them back into the patient.
Immunotherapy also has applications in cancer vaccines and has aided in the creation of new treatments to keep cancer from recurring postsurgery, Adams added.
With enterprises such as Renovaro BioSciences Inc. (NASDAQ: RENB) pushing the boundaries of what immunotherapy can do for cancer patients, these forms of treatment could soon become commonplace and accessible to all in need.
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