Immunotherapy Breakthroughs Bring Hope for a Cure
Recent news that a 49-year-old Port St. Lucie woman has recovered from late-stage breast cancer using a new form of immunotherapy has generated justifiable celebration and hope. Before her treatment, the woman’s cancer was pushing into her chest and had spread to several places in her liver. But 14 months later, scans show the cancer is gone.
How it Worked
The promise of using a patient’s own immune system to recognize and eliminate cancer has long been its precision and ability to pinpoint cancer cells. In contrast, many current treatments like radiation and chemotherapy are essentially “blunt tools” that harm healthy and cancerous cells alike.
In the Florida woman’s case, doctors analyzed 62 genetic mutations of her tumor cells, then searched her own immune system for cells that could recognize these mutations. After lots of looking under the microscope, they determined that her immune system contained 11 cells that recognized some of these mutated proteins. They then grew billions of these cells and infused them back into her.
Talk about an elegant solution - even as earlier treatments had failed, her own immune system contained the key to fighting off her cancer all along. The right cells needed only to be identified and multiplied in order to perform the task for which they evolved.
Long Road Ahead
Of course, it’s far too soon to suggest that immunotherapy will cure most patients with late-stage breast cancer. Currently, the most effective treatments usually include some combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But this case is another encouraging sign that immunotherapy might be an option for some whose cancer isn’t responding to other treatments.
So far, immunotherapy has only been found to work in a limited number of cancers, especially those with enough mutations for our immune system to lock onto. But new approaches are in development. One such approach, called CAR-T therapy, involves genetically engineering a patient’s own cells to better recognize their cancer. Another type of immunotherapy re-engages the immune system, which pauses for reasons not fully understood, so it can get back to the business of finding and destroying cancer cells.
The bottom line is that even though immunotherapy is not yet effective for most patients, it is undoubtedly one of our most exciting prospects for the future. By allowing us to take advantage of our incredibly sophisticated natural defenses, it can sometimes provide long-term control of a cancer, much like a vaccination can control infections.
Hope is vital to cancer care. Seeing the future as an opportunity can contribute to our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Immunotherapy success stories are giving hope to patients and their families that a cure is possible. Even if these therapies are not yet broadly effective, we are grateful for any new tool in our fight against cancer.
About Dr. Dietrich
Martin Dietrich, MD, PhD, is a board-certified medical oncologist at the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute who focuses on the evaluation, treatment and development of new therapies for breast cancer.