Immunotherapy for cancer treatment

The way we treat cancers is changing.

In general, we treat cancers with chemotherapy- using small molecule drugs to shrink or kill tumours. This follows with the development of pharmaceutical and medical research; until a few years ago, it had been mostly chemistry-based. Now we are entering a new paradigm of medical research, one where we can harness the power of biology.

The reasons for biology being under-represented in medical treatment (to a degree) are numerous and complicated. But avoiding all the conspiracy theories, we have finally come to a point where technology and technique have caught up with the ideas and ambitions of the scientists using them. In this example, the use of antibodies for the treatment of cancers.

This technique is still in its infancy, and thus all research must be treated with care- we have not cured cancer (which itself is an umbrella term for numerous different diseases). The treatment can only extend lifespans by a matter of months, maybe, but it is a big step in the right direction.

The method of treatment from a British-led trial consists of using monoclonal antibodies; the proteins in our body that identify and neutralise the viruses, bacteria and other pathogens that make us sick. They are monoclonal because they are cloned from a single source, making them specific to the job you want. In the trial, they found that using a combination of two of these antibody drugs, ipilimumab and nivolumab, led to the slowing of advancement of tumours in 58% of cases, for up to 11.5 months. Using only one of these drugs reduces that statistic to 19%.

Dr James Larkin, a consultant at the Royal Marsden hospital and one of the UK’s lead investigators, told the BBC: “By giving these drugs together you are effectively taking two brakes off the immune system rather than one, so the immune system is able to recognise tumours it wasn’t previously recognising and react to that and destroy them.”

However, oncologist Prof Karol Sikora, the dean of the University of Buckingham’s medical school, cautioned against expectations of “miraculous breakthroughs” from the latest discoveries. “The immune system has been known to affect certain cancers when stimulated for the last 100 years, but we haven’t quite got round it yet.

“The current discoveries being released in Chicago, the media pick them up and for cancer patients it’s very sad. You would think cancer was being cured tomorrow. It’s not the case. We’ve got a lot to learn.”

H/T: The Guardian

Image credit: Royal Marsden, treatment of cancer CT scans.

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