On July 30, 2016, the New York Times (NYT) reported the tremendous success and promise of immunotherapy as a complement to surgery and/or chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Immunotherapy uses parts of a patient's own immune system to fight diseases such as cancer. As explained by the NYT article: "The immune system - a network of cells, tissues and biochemicals that they secrete - defends the body against viruses, bacteria and other invaders."
Financial groups, pharmaceutical companies and the federal government's "cancer moonshot program" are investing billions of dollars in the rapidly growing field of immunotherapy. According to the NYT, hundreds of clinical trials are underway for almost every type of cancer. The problem is that cancer finds ways to either hide from the immune system or block the immune systems ability to fight back. Researchers are focusing on drugs known to free the immune cells to fight cancer by blocking a mechanism, called a checkpoint, that cancer cells use to disable the immune system. These drugs are called checkpoint inhibitors.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved four checkpoint inhibitors (Yervoy, Opdivo, Keytruda and Tecentriq) to treat melanoma, Hodgkin's lymphoma and cancers of the lung, kidney and bladder. The checkpoint inhibitor drug Keytruda has become famous for successfully treating President Jimmy Carter's melanoma, which had spread to his liver and brain.
Immunotherapy has added years of life to some patients with metastatic lung cancer and bladder cancer. It has been proven effective with cancer vaccines which work in the same way vaccines prevent measles and chicken pox. But there is much to learn. While researchers are struggling to understand why immunotherapy is effective for some people and not others, patients diagnosed with cancer should be asking their oncologist if immunotherapy could be of any assistance in fighting their disease.