For the past decade, UofL Brown Cancer Center has been at the forefront of developing and testing immunotherapies including antibodies that activate immune cells and autologous tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) that can directly kill cancer cells. These, along with other combinations of immunotherapies are being tested in clinical trials.
What is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the immune system to fight cancer. Recent discoveries about the way the immune system regulates itself have translated into new drugs that can not only prevent cancer from spreading and killing, but can also eradicate cancer completely from a patient’s body.
How does it work?
Immunotherapy treatments can work in different ways. While some immunotherapies simply boost the body’s immune system, others train the immune system to specifically attack cancer cells.
The body’s immune system protects one from infections and other diseases by protecting it from germs and abnormal substances it finds in the body. If the immune system finds something it doesn’t recognize, it attacks that substance and anything containing that substance.
When it comes to cancer, however, the immune system doesn’t always recognize cancer cells as foreign or the fight response isn’t strong enough to destroy the cancer.
Researchers have found ways (through immunotherapy approaches) to trigger the immune system to recognize these cancer cells and boost the response so that it kills the cancer cells.
How is it different from chemotherapy?
These new immunotherapies are very different from chemotherapies. Chemotherapy was developed as tiny, very toxic chemicals designed to target DNA and kill cancer cells. Instead, immunotherapies activate the patient’s own immune system to selectively kill cancer cells. The majority of patients who receive immunotherapies do not suffer from significant side effects.
Types of immunotherapy
According to the American Cancer Society and Dr. Chesney, the main types of immunotherapy now being used to treat cancer include:
- Monoclonal antibodies: These are man-made versions of immune system proteins. Antibodies can be very useful in treating cancer because they can be designed to attack a very specific part of a cancer cell.
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors: These drugs basically take the ‘brakes’ off the immune system, which helps it recognize and attack cancer cells.
- Cellular therapies: The patient's own immune cells are taken from the blood or a tumor and expanded and/or modified to kill the patient's cancer cells.
- Cancer vaccines: Vaccines are substances put into the body to start an immune response against certain diseases. We usually think of them as being given to healthy people to help prevent infections. But some vaccines can help prevent or treat cancer.
- Other, non-specific immunotherapies: These treatments boost the immune system in a general way, but this can still help the immune system attack cancer cells.
Cancer researchers at UofL Brown Cancer Center started studying immunotherapy approaches in melanoma (skin cancer) patients because this cancer is easily detected by the immune system and kills 40,000 children and adults per year.
We were the top center in the world to test the combination of agents that prime the immune system (oncolytic viruses) and agents that expand the immune system (immune checkpoint inhibitors). Both of these two classes of immunotherapies are now approved by the Food and Drug Administration and have resulted in a more than ten-fold increase in the three-year survival of metastatic melanoma patients (from only 5 percent survival to 70 percent survival after three years).
These statistics mean that close to 30,000 melanoma patients per year will now be alive to watch their children grow up, pursue their careers and enjoy their lives.
We believe these same immunotherapy approaches can be applied to all cancer types. We’ve worked hard to apply our science and clinical trials to more common adult cancers including lung cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, lymphoma and leukemia. We’re proud that the immunotherapies that we first tested against melanoma have now been found to reduce deaths caused by 12 other types of cancer.
“The most exciting recent advancement in oncology is immunotherapy. This novel treatment strategy has dramatically improved the outcome in those cancers that were previously the most fatal. Immunotherapy is now improving the prognosis of patients across multiple tumor types,” Dr. Beth Riley, deputy director of health affairs and breast medical oncologist.