Immunotherapy has been a hot topic of late, working its way into the media and even appearing in a Super Bowl commercial. Essentially, immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to build up its natural defenses to diseases. Most people are already familiar with antimicrobial immunotherapy (vaccinations) and how immunotherapy is used to treat allergies, and now it’s being hailed as a potential cure to cancer. However, as with so many cancer breakthroughs, there’s still a long way to go before the actual benefits are determined.
According to STAT News, new cancer discoveries are often misleadingly called miracles or breakthroughs when in reality they only give patients a false sense of hope. Adjectives such as these are used 50 percent of the time to describe drugs not yet approved by the FDA and 14 percent to describe drugs that were only tested in mice. “The leap from helping a mouse to saving a human is uncertain, long, and overwhelmingly unsuccessful,” STAT reported.
It’s important, with any cancer research, not to set up false expectations for patients, but it’s also equally important not to lose hope. For someone undergoing the painful and tiring symptoms of the disease and side effects of treatment, any shred of hope, as long as it’s grounded in truth, can be encouraging. Researchers are developing vaccines that will train the body to recognize and destroy cancer cells, and are testing combined treatments that pair immunotherapies with modified viruses that attack tumor cells to keep them from returning.
Although these tests have yet to make the leap from animals to human subjects, immunotherapy has proven itself to be an effective in slowing malignant tumor growth in mice, when combined with chemotherapy. In the study published in Journal of Hepatology, a group of mice administered with the immunotherapy antibody anti-PD-1 grew at a much slower rate over a the four-week trial period than mice treated with chemotherapy. Mice treated with a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy experienced even slower tumor growth, experiencing a tumor growth of 15 percent as opposed to 25 percent in those treated with the chemotherapy drug alone. According to researcher Guangfu Li, “Our results show that a combined chemo-immunotherapeutic approach can slow tumor growth in mice more effectively than either individual treatment.”
Right now, in its early stages, there are of course limitations to immunotherapy and the need for continued research and improvements. For instance, not all cancer patients will respond to treatments in the same way, so researchers will need to identify biomarkers in order to personalize treatments. It will also be a major challenge for researchers to ensure that immunotherapy treatments target only the harmful cancer cells without destroying nonmalignant cells that the body needs to survive.
So yes, there is still a long way to go when it comes to immunotherapy as a “cure” or even a treatment for cancer, but the research conducted so far suggests that it has great potential for combating this deadly disease.