Immunotherapy and Cancer

Could this be the silver bullet we’re looking for?
Kathryn Vinson, MS, CCRC

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the process of getting new cancer treatments to market in “What’s the Hold Up?”.  I hope that this “Reader’s Digest” version gave you some insight into the world of clinical research.  Today I want to focus on the amazing things that are in the pipeline for cancer treatments, rather than how long it takes them to get to the market. A lot of us have heard about new cancer treatments utilizing immunotherapy, but we may sit here and think – what in the world is that? So, let’s have a bit of a science and history lesson, then talk about what the brilliant scientists focused on cancer research have been developing.

What is Immunology

Simply put, immunology is the study of the parts and workings of the immune system.  When we refer to immunology in terms of treating a disease, we are talking about getting our own immune systems to fight these diseases (in our case – cancers) and thus the term – immunotherapy. William B. Coley, MD is known as the Father of Immunotherapy for his ground-breaking work in the 1900s. While Dr. Coley achieved great results with his process of injecting tumors with known pathogens such as Streptococcus pyogenes (the bacteria that causes strep throat), many folks were leery, and rightfully so, of introducing bacteria into the bodies of cancer patients. The way this worked was by getting the body to attack the pathogen that was in the tumor, thereby also killing the tumor.

In 1976, the tuberculosis vaccine Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) was tested in a trial to prevent the recurrence of certain bladder cancers. Also in that year, the T-cell growth factor interleukin 2 (IL-2) was discovered. BCG as well as IL-2 treatments are still used to this day.

So, what is the difference between these immunotherapies and traditional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation? Traditional chemotherapy drugs work by targeting fast growing cells, a category that cancers fall into. The targeting of fast growing cells is also why we see side effects such as hair loss during chemo treatments. External beam radiation also targets tumors, but from the outside rather than in a systemic manner.

Immunotherapies work by either increasing the activity of our immune systems or by teaching our immune systems to target these specific cancer cells. While these treatments do have their own list of potential side effects, they can have longer acting benefits in that they are teaching our bodies to fight in the long term, rather than relying on a medicine that wears off.

What’s happening now?

In a summer 2017 report, it was revealed that there are 241 different immuno-oncology drugs in clinical trials.  A quick perusal of this list shows numerous types of cancer that are being targeted with these therapies from melanoma to breast cancer to nonresectable pancreatic cancer, just to name a few.

Many immunotherapies are now or are becoming the standard of care for the treatment of many cancers.  There are a wide array of different types of immunotherapies ranging from monoclonal antibodies, to IL2, to even custom cancer vaccines.

We all dream of the day when scientists find that magical “silver bullet” that will put an end to these dreaded afflictions. As we know, there isn’t likely to be a one size fits all solution to a bevy of diseases with myriad causes. But, could immunotherapy be a step in that direction by teaching our bodies to fight these conditions?  Only time will tell.  We encourage you to take a look at our listing of clinical trials if you are so inclined, and discuss these options with your doctor.

A giant thank you to the scientists, researchers, and patient volunteers that help bring new cancer treatments to the market.  You are all heroes in our book.


Credit for this amazing illustration goes to

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