By Jana Soeldner Danger
Every day our bodies are attacked by cancer cells. Usually, our immune systems send them packing. But not always. Sometimes a person’s T cells, the part of the immune system that fights cancer, lose the battle. Cancer cells may produce substances that suppress the immune system or interact with it in ways that cancel the immune response. And some types of cancer cells can actually hide from T cells.
When a tumor is isolated, doctors may be able to remove it surgically. But when cancer metastasizes, or spreads, the only treatments available for decades have been radiation and chemotherapy. Both are toxic to healthy cells as well as cancer cells.
Now a newer drug, nivolumab, offers a different kind of weapon. It stimulates a patient’s immune system to battle tumors naturally.
“It’s a very promising intervention,” says Dr. Luis Raez, medical director of the Memorial Cancer Institute, which has locations in Hollywood and Pembroke Pines. “It allows us to fight the cancer with a therapy that’s less toxic than chemotherapy. The side effects are very minimal, and it can be more effective than current chemotherapy.”
Nivolumab was approved about a year ago for advanced melanoma and in March for lung cancer. It works by blocking a pathway that cancer cells can slip through without being detected by the body’s immune system. With the pathway shut off, the patient’s immune system can detect the cancer and fight it.
Results of clinical trials for nivolumab, some of which MCI participated in, had extremely good outcomes. Survival rates after a year when traditional chemotherapy has already failed are only about 24 percent, Raez said. With nivolumab the rate rose to 42 percent, with less toxicity and better quality of life.
The drug is given intravenously, and therapy continues for the rest of the patient’s life.
“Some have been treated for two or three years and are still stable,” Raez says.
Gary Walters, 56, a lung-cancer patient at MCI, had been treated with surgery and traditional chemotherapy before beginning nivolumab in March. With immunotherapy, his side effects have been limited mostly to tiredness and some joint pain that he treats with Tylenol.
Walters, who works in pharmaceutical manufacturing, is cautiously optimistic about the future and says his treatment team seems to be as well. “They spend a lot of time dealing in hope.”