A cancer treatment that uses a person’s own immune system to kill cancer cells has been called a “mind-blowing” breakthrough by a representative of Yale University—Doctor David Hafler, a researcher who is a prominent leader in the area of immune-oncology, a new and growing body of study. Hafler says he uses a great deal of caution when calling any medical treatment a “breakthrough,” but that he is so confident in the emerging field that he feels comfortable using the word.
At the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) which was held last week, doctors and scientists were abuzz with excitement over the presentation of multiple sets of clinical research results. Among the most thrilling was a study that showed complete remission in a woman with metastatic cervical cancer—a result that would have been difficult to impossible a few years ago; once a cancer travels to other parts of the body it is often considered incurable.
Some researchers caution that the treatments are in the earliest stages of study and can not be called a “cure” because they have only proven the concept that immuno-oncology is a worthwhile pursuit. Still, others are confident that the results presented at the conference may well lead to cures to a variety of cancers—both blood and solid tumors—in the future.
Immune system cancer treatment has been used for the last three years in melanoma—a type of skin cancer. What led the Yale doctor to call this kind of medicine a “mind-blowing breakthrough” is that scientists are now beginning to understand that the concept can be applied to other types of cancers as well. They are also discovering that immuno-oncology treatments can train the immune system to distinguish between healthy and malignant cells, then coax them out of hiding and kill the bad ones while leaving the good intact. For this reason, say researchers, the future may see the need for chemotherapy lessened or eliminated altogether.
This would be superb news for the millions of people who suffer the side effects of current first-line chemotherapy treatments, which are highly toxic. Side effects of chemo can range from less serious problems like nausea to deadly effects like heart failure or sudden anaphylaxis. In the absence of serious problems like these, chemo treatments can impact a person’s quality of life in a negative way. Immuno-oncology treatments could potentially erase the need for chemo as new “designer” and highly programmed drugs take the place of old school medicines.
Of course, there are drawbacks to the new medicines because they are far from perfected. First, and perhaps most significantly, the new treatments do not work on everyone, and so far, doctors have been unable to determine why this is true. Secondly, some of the current drugs that have been developed carry risks for significant side effects in some people; side effects that can be just as dangerous as those found with chemotherapy. Despite these initial stumbling blocks, doctors involved in this field want to stress how significant this “mind-blowing breakthrough,” as the doctor from Yale states, is and how cancer treatment that targets the immune system could one day replace traditional medicines.
By Rebecca Savastio