Immunotherapy as a cancer treatment, which is sometimes called biologic therapy, relies on the body’s immune defenses to stop cancer cell growth and spread, as well as uses elements of the immune system to destroy cancerous cells.
Last year, as I explained in the blog, Lung Cancer: Immunotherapy Treatment Option, immunotherapy presents the possibility of harnessing the power of the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. In that blog, I shared details about how treatment with the medication nivolumab (Opdivo®) extended survival by three months in those with squamous non-small cell lung cancer.
Research with immunotherapy extends far beyond just lung cancer. Studies are profiling different tumors with various medications to assess how well immunotherapy performs clinically. A key aspect to this research involves identifying specific antigens on tumors. Antigens are proteins that the immune system identifies as foreign, thus triggering an immune reaction.
Researchers aim to leverage these antigens as a way to use immunotherapy to target cancer destruction through medication. Tumor antigens, which are called “neoantigens,” are created as a result of cancer cell mutations. This is why they don’t exist in normal cells – thus making them an ideal target of immunotherapy. The goal being medications to target and destroy tumors while leaving other body cells unharmed; unlike the collateral damage of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
As immunotherapy for cancer continues to be researched and refined, a few key areas are the current focus of study. First, how can we ramp up the immune response? Second, are there ways to better direct T cells to the site of cancer? Third, what can be done to sustain the immune response until the cancer is cleared? Medications such as ipilimumab (Yervoy®), pembrolizumab (Keytruda®), and nivolumab (Opdivo®) are already approved and in use that address the issue to sustaining immune response in cancer immunotherapy. It continues to be a very promising time for the immunotherapy field, giving cancer patients more options than ever for better outcomes.
Stephen C. Vogt, Pharm.D.
President and CEO
BioPlus Specialty Pharmacy
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Lowe D. Where cancer immunotherapy works (and doesn’t). Sci Transl Med March 4, 2016.