Advancements in Immunotherapy Changing the Landscape of Cancer Treatment


Cancer patients have a better chance at beating diseases with the help of immunotherapy, a type of cancer treatment, as studies are now showing. Two new immunotherapy drugs have recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration last March.

One of the immunotherapies approved is Keytruda, which is made to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma for failed treatments of some patients. The other cancer treatment approved is Bavencio which is bound to treat a rare type of skin cancer more commonly known as metastatic Merkel cell carcinoma.

The drugs mentioned had speedy approval just like other immunotherapy agents because of the FDA’s growing trust in the power of these treatments for cancer patients.

FDA’s increasing authorization of these medications starting 2014, shows that the FDA deems it important that these agents should be part of the pipeline quickly. Approval of these medications includes widening the use and duration of when the drugs are allowed to be given.

Adding to this, immunotherapy drugs have been approved for treating cancers like lung cancer, head, bladder, neck cancers, and melanoma.

Dr. Roy Herbst, associate director for translational research at Yale Cancer Center and chief of oncology at the Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital, shares in Newsmax Health how these immunotherapy drugs has shifted the odds on the way lung cancer can be defeated.

Compared to immunotherapy drugs, conventional drugs only targets cells in the body that grows at a rapid pace. Cancer cells divide quickly as well as normal cells in the blood, mouth, intestinal tract, nails, hair, and nose. Loss of normal cells causes side effects such as fatigue, intestinal problems, nausea, and hair loss when patients undergo chemotherapy.

Dr. Herbst shares that side effects caused by immunologic drugs are less severe compared to conventional ones because immunotherapy drugs are powered by the body’s own immune defenses.

He also shared that some patients, like Bob Amendola of Connecticut, have been living years with lung cancer but live so long despite having an advance cancer stage. Bob is currently 49 years old and was diagnosed with lung cancer when he was 38 after doctors found a small lump in his neck.

Bob relayed how his cancer was found “I was 38 years old and everything was going great. I felt a little bump by my collarbone and my sister, who is a nurse, said, ‘That’s unusual, you should get it looked at.’ “

Apparently, the antibiotics the doctor gave him didn’t do much and then decided to undergo a CAT scan. With the CAT scan results reviewed by the doctor, he was endorsed to a thoracic surgeon. The diagnosis was Stage 4 lung cancer and that the cancer has already spread to Bob’s brain, which commonly gives the patient only 1% chance of survival.

Despite accepting his minimal chance of defeating his lung cancer, Bob still requested to be treated as aggressively as possible. His treatment included chemotherapy that managed to keep the disease from spreading and kept it at bay for seven challenging years, as well as radiation, which took care of the spots on his brain.

Chemotherapy has never been easy for patients and their families. “Chemotherapy is vicious. It’s physically and mentally draining. You’re exhausted, you have mood swings. You’ll feel like you’re not the same person anymore,” he says. “You can’t swallow anything. You get over it slowly, but once you do, it’s time to go through the whole thing all over again.”

Despite the chemotherapy keeping the cancer at bay, after seven years, the cancer started to grow again.

Coincidentally, a clinical trial of an immunotherapy drug called Tecentriq (atezolizumab) was in the works at the time for patients like him who had already been treated with chemotherapy or whose tumors have certain markers. Bob enrolled in the trial as he happened to fit the criteria

At the beginning of the trial, he had a 1.5-inch tumor protruding out of his skin. But as soon as he started with the treatment, the tumor began to wane almost instantaneously.

He noticed the bump decreasing in size when he was in the shower one time, drying himself off. He went for a CAT scan which confirmed that the tumor has minimized by 30 percent. But after a year of continuous medication, the tumor was completely gone.

He also shared that he didn’t feel any side effects like losing his hair or chalkiness in his mouth and how he was still strong enough to do conference calls on his laptop while he was getting treated.

For the past three years since the trial ended, Bob had some small cancer growths that needed to be surgically removed. None of them have returned post-surgery.

Bob is just one of the many patients who are fit for immunotherapy drugs. However, it is not for everyone, as Dr. Herbst remarks.

Immunotherapy helps about 20 percent of cancer patients and it is their goal to increase the number patients they can help by researching for more improvements. This includes looking for other tumor markets that could help them identity whether the drugs would work or not or if need be joined with chemotherapy.

Bob shares his story to other patients dealing with cancer in order to inspire them and to spark hope that someday “in some way, there will be something there for you,” he says. “If not today, it might be tomorrow. For instance, this drug works for some people, but for some, it doesn’t. But I tell everybody I meet that there is hope out there and that they shouldn’t give up.”