This Moment in Cancer: How Researchers Are Putting The Body's Own Army To Work To Fight Cancer

March 1, 2017
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This week we are excited to present an excerpt from This Moment in Cancer, a health blog at 90.9 WBUR—Boston’s NPR News Station.

This blog series discusses cancer prevention, research, treatment, and more and includes a WBUR's Cancer Community Q&A.

In the post by Karen Weintraub, “How Researchers Are Putting The Body's Own Army To Work To Fight Cancer,” chemotherapy as a cancer treatment option is discussed:

Radiation, chemotherapy and surgery are great at shrinking or cutting out tumors. But these approaches can miss cancer cells that then seed new tumors.

That’s why researchers are increasingly pinning their hopes on a new treatment strategy: using the immune system to hunt down and kill cancer cells wherever they are in the body.

“There's no doubt that immunotherapy is the new yellow shiny toy,’ says Greg Simon, the former head of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force set up by former Vice President Joe Biden. “The question is: Is it going to work in enough people to justify the billions that will be invested in it?”

More than a century ago, a New York bone cancer surgeon named William Coley noticed that some of his patients recovered spontaneously from their cancer after they caught infections.

The idea made sense: The immune system is designed to hunt down foreign cells anywhere in the body, so it seems like the perfect tool to seek out and destroy cancer cells.

Coley began infecting patients with a cocktail of bacteria that came to be called "Coley’s Toxins." He had some successes, but his approach fell out of favor when radiation treatments and chemotherapy came along.

Over the second half of the 20th century, researchers occasionally tried again to get the immune system to fight cancer. But nearly every time they either failed to get it to recognize cancer cells or revved the immune system up too much and sickened or even killed patients.

There’s a delicate balance between encouraging the immune system to fight cancer and pushing it into overdrive, says Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

"We don't want to stimulate the immune system to fight normal cells and tissues — it's really a fine line," he says. "The body has many control mechanisms to keep the immune system focused on its targets to avoid autoimmunity and instead just fight cancer."

About 20 years ago, researchers began to realize that cancer somehow stopped the immune system from hunting down and killing tumor cells -- it put brakes on the immune system. Scientists began testing drugs, called checkpoint blockades that could metaphorically lift cancer’s foot from the pedal.

Read more here.

Make sure to check out Cancer Support Community’s Immunotherapy resources, including our Frankly Speaking About Cancer webinars, and immunotherapy blog.