Scientists look to immune therapy to fight cancer

Cancer is one of the greatest medical issues facing Americans today. It is the second most common cause of death in the United States, coming in second only to heart disease. The challenge doctors and scientists face in fighting this disease is gargantuan, but new research is bringing in promising results. As of late, scientists across multiple studies have found similar hopeful advances with immune therapy as a means of fighting cancer. Moreover, differing studies have used immune therapy on several types of cancer with notably positive results, suggesting that immune therapy might be a viable treatment option for many cancers across the board. Immune therapy is a progressive treatment option that will certainly cause changes in medical assistance programs for cancer patients.

What is immune therapy

Immune therapy is a treatment in which the immune system is stimulated to work harder or given man-made components to help fight cancer cells.1  Recent uses of immune therapy involve taking white blood cells from within the human body and reprogramming them to make them more aggressive hunters against cancer.2 Known as T-cells, the white blood cells are modified to seek out and destroy cancerous cells.3 This process speeds up the rate at which T-cells defend the human body. Immune therapy has been a pivotal facet of cancer treatment for some time, but the modern method of utilizing T-cells is a particularly important development.

Immune therapy today

A recent study conducted at the National Cancer Institute studied the effects of immune therapy on nine women with cervical cancer brought on by HPV, the human papilloma virus.  The scientists at the National Cancer Institute built up T-cells and re-injected them, completely eliminating all signs of cancer in two of the nine women.4 Remarkably, both of the women that were successfully treated had cancer that had spread to other parts of their bodies. Though it is too early to be sure if this is a long term cure, the initial total elimination of cancerous cells has left many scientists optimistic about the potential for the future of immune therapy.

Several other studies have found similar results. A study conducted by Carl June at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, found that leukemia patients could use their own T-cells as weapons against their disease. Dr. June modified T-cells with an antibody-like protein which created new cells that attacked cancer when infused back into the patient’s bloodstream.5 These advances in immune therapy could make it a potential treatment for a wide range of cancers, including brain tumors, melanoma and bladder cancer.

Dr. Antoni Ribas, along with other researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, verified the progress of immune therapy with a study focused on skin and lung cancer. Their research found that 34 percent of skin cancer patients responded positively to an immunotherapy drug that targeted a protein in immune cells.6 The drug, known as MK-3475, speeds the rate at which T-cells work to fight off cancer cells.7 A parallel study run by the same cancer center found that 23 percent of lung cancer patients responded to MK-3475.8

Though these studies have similar results, immune therapy is still a treatment option that requires more testing. The fact that these studies have seen general success across various cancer maladies is significant. However, all of these studies are recent enough to require a waiting period to measure if this advance in immune therapy is a potential cure. Health care professionals will always be working to find better and faster treatments for the long-term malignant effects of cancer.

1http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/immunotherapy/immunotherapy-what-is-immunotherapy

2http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/leukemia-researcher-tapped-for-2014-taubman-prize-261801481.html

3“Taking the Brakes off the Immune System to Fight Deadly Cancers”  Antoni Ribas and Edward Garon. UCLA. June 3, 2014. http://www.cancer.ucla.edu/Index.aspx?page=644&recordid=730&returnURL=/index.aspx

4“Scientists Prime The Immune System As A Powerful Cancer Weapon” Matthew Harper. Forbes. June 2, 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2014/06/02/scientists-prime-the-immune-system-as-a-powerful-cancer-weapon/

5“LEUKEMIA T Cells with Chimeric Antigen Receptors Have Potent Antitumor Effects and Can Establish Memory in Patients with Advanced Leukemia” Michael Kalos1,2,*, Bruce L. Levine1,2,*, David L. Porter1,3, Sharyn Katz4, Stephan A. Grupp5,6, Adam Bagg1,2 and Carl H. June1,2. Science Translational Medicine. August 10, 2011. http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/3/95/95ra73.full

6“Taking the Brakes off the Immune System to Fight Deadly Cancers”  Antoni Ribas and Edward Garon. UCLA. June 3, 2014. http://www.cancer.ucla.edu/Index.aspx?page=644&recordid=730&returnURL=/index.aspx

7“Taking the Brakes off the Immune System to Fight Deadly Cancers”  Antoni Ribas and Edward Garon. UCLA. June 3, 2014. http://www.cancer.ucla.edu/Index.aspx?page=644&recordid=730&returnURL=/index.aspx

8“Taking the Brakes off the Immune System to Fight Deadly Cancers”  Antoni Ribas and Edward Garon. UCLA. June 3, 2014. http://www.cancer.ucla.edu/Index.aspx?page=644&recordid=730&returnURL=/index.aspx