Killing cancer: The treatment
Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the body's own natural defenses to fight cancer. White blood cells (T cells) that make up the immune system can be stimulated in several ways by specially designed drugs that allow them to recognize and kill cancer cells.
The immune system is a network of cells and organs that work together to defend the body against attacks by foreign substances. This network is one of the body's main defenses against disease. It works against disease, including cancer, in many ways. For example, the immune system may recognize the difference between healthy cells and cancer cells and work to eliminate those that become cancerous. Cancer may develop when the immune system breaks down or is not functioning adequately.
The Cancer Immunotherapy Research Program at Penn Medicine has developed novel immune therapies for the treatment of cancer. These therapies include cancer vaccines, immune modulatory drugs, and cell-based therapies with state-of-the-art technologies including gene therapy, monoclonal antibodies, and T-cell engineering.
Among the reasons why people should give Immunotherapy a try we find the following:
• In recent years, immunotherapies have succeeded in achieving complete and durable remissions in some patients with cancers previously considered incurable.
• Immunotherapies are generally safe, and do not confer the traditional side effects seen with chemotherapy, such as hair loss and nausea.
A lot of clinical trials, a process designed to ensure that new treatments are better than existing therapies, are being performed at Penn Medicine and represent a completely new approach to cancer treatment. These researches are collecting T cells from patients are re-engineering them in a lab to recognize and attach to a protein that is found only on the surface of cancerous B cells. After this re-engineering, they are called chimeric antigen receptor T cells and are put back into the patient where they disperse to find cancerous B cells. As the re-engineered cells multiply in the body, they attach to and kill the rapidly dividing, cancerous B cells. They remain in the body long after to continue fighting any new cancerous B cells.
Despite the efficiency of this therapy, only 4 active immunotherapies have been approved for cancer, meaning that hundreds of other new and promising cancer immunotherapy treatments are only available to patients in clinical trials and, only 2% to 3% percent of cancer patients who are eligible for clinical trials participate which slows the clinical development process significantly, and means that more than 95% of cancer patients may be missing out on potentially lifesaving new treatments.
By participating in an immunotherapy clinical trial people have the opportunity not only to access a potentially lifesaving treatment, but also to help advance this new approach and bring immunotherapies to more patients in the future. However, many patients are not aware of clinical trials because their doctors do not inform them about these opportunities. That’s why researchers at Penn Medicine and other institutes are encouraging patients to educate themselves in order to speed the development and approval of new drugs for more patients in the future.