The Cancer Moonshot and the Rise of Immunotherapy

The discovery of a cure for cancer has long been awaited. Although death rates dropped by 25 percent between 1991 and 2014, cancer is still the second leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease. In an effort to reach the goal faster, the Cancer Moonshot was created to develop new research, trials and eventual treatment methods. Designated by former President Barack Obama in 2016 and led by former Vice President Joe Biden, the initiative aims to complete 10 years of cancer research by 2020. High-level goals include the expansion of cancer prevention and detection strategies, minimizing treatment side effects, establishing a network to allow for direct patient involvement, increasing data sharing, and devoting research time and money to immunotherapy.

Many doctors and researchers envision immunotherapy becoming the best treatment option we’ve seen in years. Still early in its development, this cancer treatment utilizes the body’s natural defense system to fight off cancer cells. These cells, normally hidden from the body’s immune system, are unveiled when one of three main types of cancer immunotherapy is involved:

  • First used in 1981 to fight liver cancer, cancer vaccines are a form of immunotherapy. Therapeutic vaccines are injected once a person is already diagnosed with cancer as a form of treatment to stop growth or recurrence. (Although vaccines for cancer can also be preventative, like the HPV vaccine, that is not a form of immunotherapy.)
  • Monoclonal antibody (mAbs) treatment uses man-made antibodies designed to attack a specific part of a cancer cell.
  • Targeting the PD-L1 protein cancer cells hide behind, immune checkpoint inhibitors unleash the immune system and allow it to attack those previously unrecognizable cancerous cells.

Traditional treatments like chemotherapy, radiation and surgery will likely see continued usage, but the highest efficacy will come from combination therapies including immunotherapy. While immunotherapy is still in its early stages, many treatments are currently in clinical trials. For example, one trial is currently putting combination therapy to use on patients battling the rare cancer mesothelioma. This cancer has a low prognosis even when chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are all executed. By testing immune checkpoint inhibitors as a neoadjuvant, this trial is allowing researchers to detect how a tumor will react to the drugs by administering the immunotherapy before surgery.

The goal of the Cancer Moonshot is to eventually end cancer as we know it, whether it’s through immunotherapy, better prevention and detection, or a new treatment all together. The money and manpower attached to the Cancer Moonshot initiative is helping researchers make strides to meet this goal far into the future. Learn more about the Cancer Moonshot below or by reading on here.

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