What if the path to curing cancer has been part of the body all along?
For generations the three pillars of cancer treatment have been surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. But both chemotherapy and radiation are crude weapons with significant collateral damage to healthy tissue, and surgery can leave cancerous cells behind. Scientists have long tried to understand how to get the immune system—the body’s natural defense mechanism—to recognize cancer cells as the enemy and destroy them. And now we may finally be turning the corner: Doctors are finding that clinical regimens known as immunotherapies can empower a patient’s immune system to fight the disease like it might an infection, while sparing a person’s normal cells.
“Before now, physicians in the field have always been extremely hesitant to use the ‘cure’ word for cancer,” said Dr. Axel Hoos, head of the immuno-oncology discovery performance unit at GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals. “But because of the incredible advances in immunotherapy, that’s no longer true. Individual physicians are actually using the word ‘cure’ for some patients with diseases that were almost universally fatal just five years ago.”
Last fall, scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle gathered at the bedside of a lymphoma patient as oncologist Dr. David Maloney reinfused a patient with the person’s own T-cells that had been genetically programmed. This form of immunotherapy harvests a person’s immune cells and recodes them to become better cancer drones.