Since cancer immunotherapy is an emerging class of treatment, many people find themselves poorly informed on the subject. Despite this, immunotherapy is poised to become the most powerful and widely used form of cancer treatment in the years to come. Already, immunotherapy is recognized by healthcare professionals as the most promising new cancer treatment approach since the production of the first chemotherapies back in the 1940s. Many professionals project that as more research is conducted, more and more immunotherapy treatments will be approved to treat more and more types of cancer. This research is dependent on the use of clinical trials, meaning the only way to get more immunotherapy treatments approved is through the cooperation of cancer patients, doctors, and scientists. Here, we will explore the potential of immunotherapy as a treatment for most (if not all) cancers, as well as discuss the importance of clinical trials to patients and scientists alike.
The Seemingly Limitless Potential of Immunotherapy
As of today, several forms of immunotherapy treatment have already been approved for use on many different types of cancer such as bladder cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma, melanoma, and lung cancer. Though there are still many forms of cancer that do not have an approved form of immunotherapy, the immune system can seemingly be made able to recognize and eliminate cancer cells anywhere in the body. This would suggest that immunotherapy could potentially be a universal answer to cancer, regardless of the form it takes.
Beyond treating cancer on its own, many of the approved forms of immunotherapy are also given in combination with other types of cancer treatment such as radiation and chemotherapy. More importantly, however, is that immunotherapy has been shown to be an effective treatment in patients who have cancers that are resistant to other forms of therapy. On top of this, immunotherapy is often a less aggressive treatment than chemotherapy and radiation, in that the risk of damaging healthy cells is reduced. By nature, chemotherapy and radiation damage a large number of healthy cells along with the cancer. Since immunotherapy can be targeted specifically at your cancer cells, and involves your own immune system doing the work, side effects such as hair loss and nausea/vomiting are reduced, while inflammation and other conditions associated with immune responses are made more common.
Finally, immunotherapy offers the possibility for controlling cancer in the long-term. Your immune system is able to learn and remember many types of foreign and/or dangerous elements that it has dealt with before. This is similar to the concept of vaccinations, where exposing your immune system to a weakened version of a virus “trains” your immune system to better deal with the same virus when faced with it again. Immunotherapy can “train” your immune system in a similar way to remember certain cancer cells. This has been shown to result in longer-lasting protection against the return of cancer, even after treatment is stopped, unparalleled by chemotherapy or radiation.
The Importance of Clinical Trials
Though many potential forms of immunotherapy have not been approved by the FDA yet, there are many that can be obtained by patients through entering a clinical trial. Clinical trials are the last step when attempting to get a new class of treatment approved, and are used to ensure that the treatment works as predicted, is safe, and is given in the correct dose depending on a person’s condition. These clinical trials are essential to increasing the amount of readily available treatment options for patients with especially difficult-to-treat cancers.
Beyond the benefit of potentially adding to the pool of treatment options for future cancer patients, clinical trials can provide serious benefits to current patients as well. People unlucky enough to have cancers which are difficult to treat with traditional chemotherapy and radiation are often recommended for clinical trials of immunotherapy treatments for their type of cancer. These people, who may otherwise have had little hope for a potential cure, often find that immunotherapy works where all other treatments failed.
The major downside of clinical trials is that there are often a very limited number of spots at any given time for each trial. It can sometimes be difficult for patients fighting to get an open spot in a potentially life-changing trial, but this does not make it unreasonable to try. Developing new forms of this powerful class of treatment is currently our most promising path forward in our battle against cancer, and it’s exciting that so many patients around the world get to be a part of this mission through clinical trials.
“What Is Immunotherapy.” Cancer Research Institute, www.cancerresearch.org/immunotherapy/what-is-immunotherapy.
“Your Body, Your Hope.” Stand Up to Cancer, Stand Up To Cancer, standuptocancer.org/immunotherapy.