Friday, December 27, 2013

Immunotherapy is #1!

The well-respected journal Science named cancer immunotherapy its breakthrough of the year for all of science (beating out significant research on human cloning, among other breakthroughs). It's a nice stamp of approval for something that might be able to affect all of us in the near future.

Immunotherapy is, of course, the general name for the processes that try to get the body's immune system to fight cancer on its own. The article cites some amazing results on stage 4 melanoma patients, and perhaps more relevant for us, on acute lymphocytic leukemia (which I wrote about recently) with T-cell therapy, where the patient's T-cells (which normally attack invaders) are removed and re-engineered to recognize cancer cells, and then put back in.

The big reason, it seems, for giving the breakthrough award to immunotherapy is that it has changed the way researchers look at cancer. The focus isn't on the tumor or the cancer cells, but on the immune system. Instead of changing the cells (say, with chemotherapy), it's about changing the attack system. It's like building a team around pitching and defense rather than big bats.

Of course, immunotherapy has been in around for a while. Antobodies like Rituxan are technically a type of immunotherapy, though it works in a different way than the re-engineered T-cells. But it's the same general principal -- use what we know about the body's defenses to help the body defend itself.

As the article notes, we're still pretty early in the research here, especially with T-cells. It works amazingly well for some patients, but not all. And as for Follicular Lymphoma, we're even earlier in the research than for melanoma or ALL. And I'm still personally still impressed with cancer's ability to find ways around our attempts to fool it. So we're still a way off with all of this.

But, as I said, it's quite a stamp of approval from Science, and certainly reason for hope in the (perhaps near?) future.

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