Why Immunotherapy Is The Future of Cancer Treatment

The immune system is a complex network that attacks foreign substances like germs and viruses. But cancer has historically been resistant to the body’s natural defenses, mainly because the body doesn’t see it as foreign. T-cells participating in the immune system’s response are unable to recognize the rogue cancer cells because they carry proteins called PD-L1 that act like masks allowing the cancer to blend in with other normal cells. Immunotherapy is a treatment that essentially simulates natural human antibodies to block the PD-L1 protein and expose the tumor for T-cells to attack.

The Past

The rise of immunotherapy has been experimental in nature. Beginning in the late 1800s, a New York surgeon named William Coley saw impressive responses from children with sarcoma that he treated with bacterial extracts. However, due to the success of antibiotics, immunotherapy research largely fell by the wayside. A few small breakthroughs during the 1900s, including the introduction of the first cancer prevention vaccine in 1981, eventually led to the continued growth we’re seeing today.

The Present

In the wake of multiple government-backed research initiatives, including the Human Genome Project of the 1990s and early 2000s and the Cancer Moonshot announced in 2016, immunotherapy has once again surged into the spotlight as an emerging cancer treatment. Growing antibiotic resistance, the negative side effects of chemotherapy and radiation and the overall low survival rates of current cancer treatments have left room for a “miracle cure” to step in. In recent years, three FDA-approved immunotherapies have been introduced to the market, including Keytruda, a drug used to treat melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer. Doctors focused on rare cancers like mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer with a 9% five-year survival rate using current traditional treatments, are particularly excited for a breakthrough. Clinical trials using immunotherapy as a neoadjuvant (pre-surgery) are finding early success in mesothelioma patients.

The Future

It’s hard to say how far into the future we’ll have to look to find a cure for cancer, but many doctors and researchers envision immunotherapy as a part of that combination therapy solution. While we will continue to see progress and successes in clinical trials, it is expected this treatment will not only enhance the body’s response to traditional treatments, but will lead to longer lasting results and a better quality of life.


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