The good news is that deaths from cancer in the U.S. continue to decline. And there will be no bad news to follow that statement. The continued drop in death rates is due to improved treatments and people’s better lifestyle choices and habits.
As we recognize National Cancer Survivors Day on June 5 and Cancer Immunotherapy Awareness Month during June, we celebrate advances in treatment.
Most of us are familiar with cancer treatments of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, yet other advances in cancer treatment have also contributed to longer length of survival. Many cancers can be cured, and others can now be treated as a chronic illness, similar to how we treat diabetes or heart disease. People are now living with cancer, prolonging the length and quality of their lives.
According to the National Cancer Institute, immunotherapies currently in use are:
• Immune checkpoint inhibitors
• T-cell transfer therapies
• Monoclonal antibodies
• Immune system modulators
Some cancer cells can hide from the immune system using checkpoint proteins. Checkpoint inhibitors prevent the inhibiting bonds from being formed, thus allowing the patients’ T-cells to destroy the cancer cell. This therapy is used to treat many forms of cancer.
Currently, CAR T-cell therapy (chimeric antigen receptor), a type of T-cell transfer therapy, is approved to treat some blood cancers. It involves taking a sample of the patient’s blood, isolating the T-cells, modifying them so they recognize the cancer cells, making millions of copies of these modified T-cells and infusing them back into the patient.
Monoclonal antibodies are made in the lab. They work by binding to the cancer cell so the T-cells can recognize and kill them. This is also used to treat a variety of cancers.
Vaccines as immunotherapy are different than vaccines to prevent cancer or illness. These are intended to improve the immune response against cancer. Cancer cells have tumor-associated antigens that other cells generally do not have. The vaccines prompt the immune system to recognize the antigens. This can be used to treat some prostate cancers.
Immune system modulators enhance the body’s immune response by stimulating the production of cytokines, interferon or interleukin, to name a few, and are currently used to treat some advanced cancers.
Other immunotherapy is only available in clinical trials, so talk to your oncologist to see if you qualify.
Research scientists are discovering more and more about how certain cancer cells metastasize or spread and make cancer more deadly. They are looking into ways to personalize cancer treatment and even how to revert cancer cells to normal cells. There are now clinical trials using mRNA vaccine to treat colon cancer, using the same technology in the recent COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Karng Log is a medical oncologist with the Cancer Centers of Colorado – Lutheran Medical Center.