Immunotherapy Developments Give Hope to Desperate Cancer Patients
Some of the most impressive and promising advances in the cancer research field have come in the form of what is known as immunotherapy. Over the past several years, the viability of these developing treatments has been tested as drug companies invest billions of dollars into research and clinical trials.
Immunotherapy refers to any treatment which utilizes the immune system to fight against diseases, most notably cancer. Immunotherapy is unlike chemotherapy in that instead of killing both cancer cells and healthy cells, it enables the cells in the immune system to fight solely against the cancerous cells.
While there are quite a few different types of immunotherapy, the drugs gaining the most traction in the medical community and producing the most effective results are known as checkpoint inhibitors.
Sometimes, the immune system can become too aggressive when fighting against a disease. To keep the immune system in check, killer T-cells, white blood cells often described as the soldiers of the immune system, have built-in brakes. These brakes are the checkpoints that these drugs aim to inhibit.
The reasoning behind circumventing these natural, protective measures is found in the fact that cancer cells have a few tricks of their own up their sleeve. Cancer cells have evolved to the point of turning the T-cells’ built-in checkpoints against themselves. The cancer essentially finds a way to activate the checkpoint thus rendering the killer T-cells utterly useless.
The checkpoint inhibitor drugs have shown promise in switching off the protections in the immune system so that the cancer can’t use them for their own nefarious purposes. In addition, the drugs allow the T-cells to go all out in their effort to kill the cancer without any blockades or limits. Unsurprisingly, however, these drugs do not come without their side-effects.
Checkpoint inhibitors can cause autoimmune illnesses to develop when they mistakenly attack healthy tissue as well as the cancer-claimed tissue. One of many possible results is inflammation. In the lungs, breathing trouble occurs. In the intestines, it can cause diarrhea. In fact, if not treated rapidly, intestinal inflammation caused by the checkpoint inhibitors can result in death.
On a more positive note, when the drugs work as designed, they produce a result unheard of thus far in the cancer research community. Some patients who have been told they have only months to live have had their lives extended by years. Many have even seen their cancer completely disappear, never to return. Unfortunately, not all patients have witnessed these miraculous results. Generally, only 20 to 40 percent of patients are helped by checkpoint inhibitors. Still, this is incredible news for people who have been told their disease is untreatable and inoperable and that they have no other treatment options available to them.
So far, four different checkpoint inhibitor drugs have been approved for use in the United States. A few notable drugs are also currently in development. While treatment with these new life-savers can cost up to $150,000 per year, those who qualify for and manage to get admitted into a clinical trial receive the drugs for free. Clinical trials have been going on for years, but the process is so complex with so many different unexpected effects and undiscovered results that checkpoint inhibitors will likely be studied for decades before they pass up chemotherapy as the go-to cancer treatment.