Scientific advancements in cancer treatment continue to drive cancer deaths down in the U.S. From 2001 to 2020, cancer death rates decreased by 27%. Earlier detection made possible with new ways of detecting cancer is partially responsible, but much of it comes from new forms of treatment.
Two decades ago, someone diagnosed with cancer had limited treatment options that usually involved only surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. The advent of immunotherapy for cancer has provided a new weapon in the fight against cancer. Read on to learn more about what cancer immunotherapy is and what its future may hold.
What Is Immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy treatments rely on the body’s natural defenses. Instead of destroying cancerous cells with drugs or radiation like other cancer treatments, immunotherapies bolster the immune system, helping it fight cancer itself. The immune system is a network of cells, organs, and tissues that work together to repair tissues and fight harmful microorganisms.
Advances in Cancer Treatment
Immunotherapy clinical trials and cancer research studies have yielded impressive results. One of the more promising clinical trials included 13 patients in the early stages of rectal cancer treatment. They were given nine doses of an intravenous immunotherapy drug called Dostarlimab, and then they were rechecked for cancer. In all 14 patients, the cancer disappeared completely.
Seeing a 100% success rate in cancer clinical trials is almost unheard of, so the findings of the study have spurred excitement among researchers and doctors. It is important to note, though, that the study size was very small. More research is needed to verify that this drug can stimulate immune response universally to eradicate cancer. Still, the early findings can provide a source of hope that it is possible to create highly effective immunotherapies for cancer.
Types of Immunotherapeutics
Immunotherapeutics for cancer now include a variety of different drugs and treatments, including:
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors: Your immune system naturally has checkpoints, which help to modulate immune response to keep the body from overreacting and responding too strongly. Immunotherapeutics that block these checkpoints help strengthen immune cells, making them more powerful for fighting cancer.
- T-cell transfer therapy: With this type of immunotherapy, a doctor removes immune system T-cells from the tumor site. The cells are then tested to determine which are the strongest or modified in a lab to make them stronger. Laboratories grow large numbers of the cells and are then made into an injection. Once injected into the body, the bolstered T-cells can go to work fighting cancer.
- Monoclonal antibodies: This immunotherapy treatment for cancer involves manufacturing proteins that bind to specific spots on cancer cells. Once introduced into the body intravenously, the antibodies stick to the cancer, making it easier for the immune system to spot and target.
- Immune system modulators: Immune system modulating drugs act directly on the immune system by increasing or decreasing key processes that make the body more effective at fighting cancer.
Can All Cancers be Treated with Immunotherapy?
Cancer clinical trials and scientific research into immunotherapy are ongoing. Currently, there are no immunotherapy treatments for all types of cancer. Here is a rundown on some of the types of cancer that can potentially be treated with immunotherapeutics:
- Bladder cancer: In 1990, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) for the treatment of early-stage bladder cancer. It is also prescribed to reduce the risk of bladder cancer returning in the future.
- Breast cancer: Pembrolizumab (keytruda) is an immune checkpoint inhibitor drug administered intravenously to treat some forms of breast cancer.
- Colorectal cancer: In addition to the drug used in the promising clinical trial described above, there are other immunotherapies for colorectal cancer, including pembrolizumab, nivolumab (opdivo) and Ipilimumab (yervoy). All three drugs are intravenous immune checkpoint inhibitors.
- Skin cancer: Once melanoma spreads to other areas of the body, it can become complicated to treat. The same immunotherapeutics used to treat colorectal cancer are sometimes prescribed for melanoma, as well as another immune checkpoint inhibitor called atezolizumab (tecentriq).
- Cervical cancer: The FDA has approved two targeted antibodies for the treatment of cervical cancer: bevacizumab (avastin) and tisotumab vedotin (tivdak). The drug pembrolizumab is also sometimes used for immunotherapy for the disease.
- Lung cancer: Some multiple targeted antibodies and immunomodulators are used to treat more advanced forms of lung cancer, such as amivantamab (rybrevant), necitumumab (portrazza), ramucirumab (cyramza) and cemiplimab (libtayo).