Sci-fi or silver bullet? How immunotherapy is revolutionizing cancer treatment
(BPT) – Could the kind of cancer treatment credited with saving former President Jimmy Carter soon work for everyone? News coverage of Carter’s recovery and in-depth coverage by media giants like TIME Magazine and 60 Minutes could lead you to believe that immunotherapy will be the silver bullet that ends cancer for everyone. Like any promising treatment, immunotherapy needs more research, time and investment to achieve its full life-saving potential.
“New treatments that harness the body’s immune system to fight disease are changing how we view cancer treatment,” says Punit Dhillon, president and CEO of OncoSec Medical Incorporated, a company engaged in immunotherapy research. “And while immunotherapy has shown great promise in fighting cancer, cancers are unique to the individual and adaptable. Research has shown combination therapies may be even more effective in defeating cancer’s ability to adapt and survive in the body.”
How immunotherapy works
To understand how immunotherapy can work, it’s important to know how cancer operates in the body. When cancer cells grow and spread, they develop the ability to evade the body’s immune system. If the body does not recognize cancer cells as a threat, they may be safe from an immune system attack. Cancer cells also adapt and can become resistant to traditional cancer treatments over time. While traditional treatments may shrink or eliminate tumors, if any cancer cells remain after treatment, they could adapt and begin growing again.
Immunotherapy seeks to reverse this immune tolerance, to once again identify cancer cells as a threat and target them for elimination. A class of immunotherapies, called checkpoint inhibitors, have shown great promise by re-invigorating T-cells, which are the immune system’s fighter cells, so they can again recognize and attack cancer cells. This approach worked for former President Carter’s brain tumor treatment.
The benefits of immunotherapies are undeniable. Successful immunotherapy attacks only cancerous cells, leaving healthy tissue undamaged. Using the body’s own defenses to fight cancer lacks some of the debilitating side effects associated with traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation. Immunotherapy can also train the immune system to remember cancer cells. This “memory” could remain effective long after treatment ends.
Another aspect of the challenge
“While checkpoint inhibitors can be very effective, many cancer patients don’t have enough of a critical type of cell — called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) — for this type of therapy to be effective,” Dhillon notes. “Researchers are finding that only the minority of patients, about 30 to 40 percent, respond when treated with just this type of therapy alone.”
Scientists are looking to combine immunotherapies with other kinds of existing cancer treatments to realize the full potential immunotherapy has to offer.
OncoSec is currently developing a technology, ImmunoPulse, that aims to stimulate anti-tumor immune activity and drive essential TILs to the tumor area. The company is conducting research that shows this priming therapy will help increase patient response rates to checkpoint inhibitors by driving TILs. The aim is to develop a therapy that, when combined with other immunotherapies, will help the body’s immune system operate even more effectively against cancer.
“To the public-at-large, immunotherapy is a relatively new concept that may seem like it borders on science fiction, but immuno-oncology researchers have made very real, positive progress,” Dhillon says. “We’ve already learned we can leverage the body’s own defenses to combat cancer. Now, our goal is to better understand how to make different therapies work better together so patients have safer and more effective treatment options.”