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Immunotherapy: Could it wipe out cancer forever?

In addition to traditional therapies, researchers are now using immunotherapy to treat certain aggressive cancers. Lawrence Lum, M.D., D.Sc., professor of Oncology, Medicine, Immunology and Microbiology at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center, discusses this potentially ground-breaking treatment.
 
Q: What is immunotherapy and how does it work?
A: Immunotherapy works by stimulating the patient’s immune system against the tumor. Our immune system’s T-cells mount the body’s strongest response to eliminating or preventing cancerous tumors. By vaccinating the patient’s immune system with protein fragments released from killed cancer cells when armed T-cells destroy tumors, we can create immune T-cells that are programmed to attack and destroy specific tumors.
 
Q: How does immunotherapy differ from standard cancer therapies?
A: Once the patient’s immune system is vaccinated with armed T-cells, the tumor-killing effect can last for a long time. Immunotherapy side effects are also minimal compared to high-dose chemotherapy.
 
Q: Can immunotherapy be used to treat any type of cancer?
A: In theory, it can be used against any cancer type, as long as the cancer cells have abnormal receptors, or proteins, on their surface that can serve as targets for the armed T-cells. These abnormal receptors are usually the result of genetic mutations that occur in cells.
 
Q: How effective is immunotherapy?
A: We’ve made huge advances in recent years. In one clinical trial, patients with incurable Stage IV metastatic breast cancer who received infusions of activated T-cells had an overall survival rate nearly two to three times longer than patients who received conventional treatment.
 
Q: Who are the best candidates for immunotherapy?
A: Since immunotherapy usually works well against small amounts of tumor, the best candidates are patients who have a small number of cancer cells remaining after surgery, chemotherapy or irradiation.
 
Q: Is immunotherapy currently offered as part of standard treatment or is it only available as a clinical trial?
A: Two immunotherapy drugs have received FDA approval: Provenge® for prostate cancer and Yervoy™ for late-stage melanoma patients. Otherwise, it’s available in clinical trials. At Karmanos, we currently have trials for breast cancer, pancreatic cancer and colon cancer.
 
Q: Could immunotherapy eventually help eliminate cancer?
A: Not by itself. Immunotherapy works best in combination with standard therapies. Our dream is to offer children a cancer vaccine that’s just as effective as the polio vaccine. We have a long way to go, but immunotherapy has great potential for the future and we’re making progress.
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