Cancer is one of the life-threatening medical conditions that have evaded the natural defenses that should destroy them. Even the immunotherapy that has proven to work wonders for alleviating cancer does not work for all patients. More also the side effects can be fierce, with high costs that are not affordable for everyone.
In fairness, however, one can say the field is still young. There are rooms for new possibilities. No one can tell, we can still find new ways to help the immune system fight back. If this is achieved, the issues of side effective and high costs will become manageable.
This is has started happening already as there have been advancements in the field of immunotherapy. This has brought profound changes in cancer treatment, thereby helping to rescue many victims with advanced malignancies that would have been a death sentence not too long ago.
According to a recent editorial in the journal JAMA “Patients with advanced cancer are increasingly living for years not months.” It added that “longer survival means that health workers in just about every specialty — not just oncologists — will be taking care of people who are living with cancer or recovered from it.”
Is this the best treatment option we can get? No, definitely not. Of course, there several ongoing clinical trials in the field that may help researchers arrive at more effective treatments that work for everyone. In an effort for researchers to find ways to fine-tune the treatments, they have now added a number of improvements to existing therapy as well as working persistently to develop new ones.
The Food and Drug Administration has only approved two main forms of immunotherapy for cancer drugs. These are called checkpoint inhibitors and CAR-T cells. They both involve helping to improve the immune system.
There is a type of white blood cell called T-cells, whose job is to kill any cell that is working against the system after being infected with viruses. Meanwhile, scientists are not looking only at T-cells; they are now experimenting with a whole new avenue of immunotherapy, which involves a white blood cell known as a macrophage.
These macrophages bolt up and destroy microbes and other foreign substances. Cancer cells, however, can escape capture by playing an “off” switch on the macrophage. There is protein on the affected cells that give a “don’t eat me” signal, and this shuts down the macrophages.
In the first phase of the study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, patients were given a standard drug combined with an experimental one. This drug blocks the “don’t eat me signal” cells. It effectively shrank cancer in 11 patients and cured it completely in eight, with only minor side effects when compared to other forms of immunotherapy.
However, it is too early to reach a conclusion on this research. There is a need for validation. Researchers also need to use the same approach to explore different cancers, including multiple myeloma.
“The concept, if it holds true, is really quite profound,” says Dr. Alexander M. Lesokhin, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “It could be pretty extraordinary,” he added.
Similar studies are also examining the involvement of CAR-T cells in treating patients with much more complex requirements. They are still testing the CAR-T treatments in other blood cancers while trying to expand their uses and ability to attack a broader range of targets on cells. This has greater potentials for the immune system as it promises minimal side effects.