Immuno-Oncology – The Challenging Road Ahead

Cancer Patients at a Town Meeting

Cancer Patients at a Town Meeting

Experts say there is tremendous promise in stimulating a patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer. A few new drugs are already on the market in this area for conditions like advanced melanoma and some subtypes of lung cancer. We have a town meeting discussing this for lung cancer on March 7th in Tampa and a melanoma one on March 28th in Phoenix. In blood cancers, hematologists also see great promise for this approach as we heard from many at the recent American Society of Hematology meeting. And, earlier, Dr. Oliver Press spoke to me about it in lymphoma. But there’s a caution just now: even when  experts say they are “excited,” it can be a rough go for patients.

As you may know, as doctors are testing out a new approach like immuno-oncology, they conduct clinical trials. Many trials are designed for the sickest people where their other options have run out. I have a dear friend in Seattle in exactly that situation. He has diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, and there is a trial of chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CART) for his condition. He hopes to start participating soon. But like other patients who benefited in chronic lymphocyttic leukemia (CLL), at this point, he is very very sick and debilitated from months of chemo and a stem cell transplant that didn’t last. Our prayer is that he will enter the trial, and miraculously his T cells can be marshaled to finally fight his cancer.

 This is nothing like taking a pill to fight a sinus infection. These days the patients in these trials are at very low points. Of course, the researchers are hoping to prove safety and effectiveness and see immuno-oncology approaches used much earlier  in the course of a disease for greater benefit. That often happens with new cancer approaches. But today—as immuno-oncology is being studied for a broader range of conditions—many of the patients are very sick, like my friend, and it is their last hope. In my friend’s case, he is now facing additional chemo, so he can qualify for the trial. The journey has been incredibly tough, and we need to be reminded of that.

 I am a big proponent of clinical trials. I believe participating in one in 2000 for CLL saved my life. Fortunately, that one was for previously untreated patients, so I was feeling pretty strong at the outset. But many other trials are for people who have tried everything else. I pray this new approach to cancer treatment works for them, and they can make a solid turn toward strength and better health. I believe immuno-oncology will work out, as it has already for some people with melanoma and lung cancer. And when it does, we will have to thank some very sick patients who faced a bumpy road to make progress real for the rest of us.

I welcome your comments.

Wishing you and your family the best of health!

Andrew


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