Immunotherapy is a new kid on the block in terms of cancer treatment. Traditional treatment includes surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and hormonal treatments.
Two researchers worked on ways that a patient’s immune system could be unleashed to attack cancer. These breakthroughs led to an entirely new class of drugs, resulting in lasting remissions to many patients who had run out of options.
The two researchers, James P. Allison of the United States and Tasuku Honjo of Japan, worked independently and have both been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this year.
T-cells, a type of white blood cell, are deployed to fight infections and cancer. The T-cells carry molecules called checkpoints that the body uses to shut down the cells when they need to stop. Cancer cells can lock onto these checkpoints, preventing the T-cells from fighting the disease.
The researchers identified two checkpoints which led to the development of drugs that would keep the checkpoints from working. In other words, the new drugs take the brakes off the immune system.
My oncologist told me, “Everything changed in 2011.” That’s when the first immunotherapy drug was approved by the FDA. Up until that point, the survival rate for melanoma patients was six to nine months. With the new drugs, a patient can expect to live for ten to twelve years.
Three of the drugs that resulted from this research were Yervoy, Opdivo, and Keytruda. These drugs are used for cancers of the lung, kidney, bladder, head and neck; for aggressive skin cancer melanoma; and for Hodgkin lymphoma among others.
President Jimmy Carter received Keytruda in 2015 when melanoma had spread to his brain and liver. He is now in remission.
Because of the way the immunotherapy drugs work, they can be too effective and turn the immune system against the patient’s own body.
I took two of these drugs during the course of my treatment. Yervoy caused serious side effects and had to be discontinued after two doses. Keytruda had practically no side effects and brought me remission from skin cancer melanoma after one year.
Needless to say, I’m grateful for the amazing discoveries that Drs. Honjo, Allison, and others have achieved. Who knows what’s on the horizon for the next generation?