Immune therapy offers the best new hope for the treatment and cure of many cancers. Immunotherapy is the most recent treatment to arrive in the long history of attempts to treat and cure cancers. Surgery came first, described by the Egyptians and later the Greeks. Radiation therapy followed, beginning in the early 1900s. Chemotherapy, the major form of cancer treatment today, arrived mid century, in the 1950s and 60s.
I remember from my early days at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard the constant discussions and hope that immune therapy might one day become a reality. I was privileged to create the company, Dendreon, that launched the first approved immune therapy for cancer, Provenge, for the treatment of prostate cancer. Our approach is described in Scientific American as a dendritic cell vaccine.
Immunotherapy has made dramatic strides in the recent past. Two new types of immune therapy have arrived. One type of new treatment stymies the ability of cancer cells to protect themselves from destruction by the body’s own immune system. To grow and survive, cancers must evade the body’s natural immune response. Check point inhibitors restore the ability of the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells. Several such drugs are now approved. These drugs are proving to be active against many types of cancers that were previously resistant to traditional therapies.
A third approach relies upon modified immune cells to kill cancer cells. The immune cells are modified outside the body so that when they are injected back into the bloodstream, they find and kill the cancer cells. This therapy goes by the awkward name CAR-T Cell Therapy.
These are just the first approaches to what, in my opinion, is the biggest advance in cancer treatment in decades. It has come none too soon for the generation of baby boomers who are just now entering the risk time of life for cancer. There is now hope for most of us.
If you or your loved one have cancer, or have recently been diagnosed with cancer, you should ask what immunotherapy is available.The therapies are new, still only available in specialized centers. Do not take no for an answer. Be persistent. Immunotherapy may save your life and the lives of those you love.
Click here to read “The Cancer Defense” in Scientific American.