At his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama announced a plan to launch a “moon shot” to cure cancer. As researchers gear up for this, with Vice President Joe Biden at the helm, immunotherapy is at the forefront of their efforts.
It’s a treatment built on a simple concept: When we get sick with a virus or an infection, our immune cells kick into gear, scanning our bodies to root out foreign invaders. When cancer appears, those same cells can react, but usually too weakly to put up much of a fight. Immunotherapies deliver a superpowered jolt that “takes advantage of the immune system and magnifies it,” says National Cancer Institute Chief of Surgery Steven Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., who developed the first successful, FDA-approved immunotherapy drug, Interleukin 2, in 1984. Now, more than 30 years later, the FDA has approved a number of other options — and there are more on the horizon. “When it works, we can cause the complete disappearance of cancer with immunotherapy, and when that occurs, it’s almost always permanent,” says Dr. Rosenberg. “It’s the curative potential that makes this so exciting.” Here are three of the most promising options.
These drugs (including Keytruda, which both Alicia Bertine and President Jimmy Carter took) “wake up” immune cells so they suddenly recognize cancer that they did not before, says Vincent DeVita, M.D., former director of the National Cancer Institute and author of the recent book The Death of Cancer. Checkpoint inhibitors are currently approved for melanoma, non-small-cell lung cancer and kidney cancer. Additional approvals are expected soon.
Adoptive cell transfer
This therapy involves removing a patient’s immune cells, reengineering them to make them stronger cancer fighters and putting them back into the body. One version — CAR T-Cell adoptive transfer — has proven effective, bordering on miraculous, with certain types of lymphomas and leukemias in patients with few, if any, treatment options.
Labs across the country are working on vaccines designed to fight proteins produced by unique mutations in patients’ cancer cells. Unlike the preventive vaccines we’re familiar with, these vaccines are being designed to treat patients with actively growing or established cancers. It’s a therapy that looks nothing like the one-size-fits-all medicines of today. “We’ll have to develop a new drug for every patient, an immune cell that can recognize that person’s specific mutation and attack it,” says Dr. Rosenberg. “If you want the cure to be simple, that’s too high a bar. Cancer is complex. The treatments that are going to cure it are likely to be complex, too.”