Why immunotherapy is revolutionizing cancer treatment |

Why immunotherapy is revolutionizing cancer treatment

Ben Schmitt
University of Pittsburgh
Immunotherapy treatment enables the body's immune system to attack diseased cells, as depicted in this rendering by the University of Pittsburgh.

UPMC compares the cancer-fighting potential of immuno­therapy to the polio vaccine and revolutionary organ transplant advancements of Dr. Thomas Starzl.

A moonshot perhaps?

The health giant’s belief in immunotherapy as a game-changer is strong enough for it to invest $200 million for researching new ways to disrupt cancer growth and reduce the need for immune-suppressing drugs in organ transplantation.

The hospital system announced plans Tuesday to build an Immune Transplant and Therapy Center along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh. The center, which is scheduled to open in 2020, will specialize in transplantation, cancer, geriatric disorders and chronic diseases.

“How do you swing for the fences if you are only trying to get on base or bunt?” said Dr. Robert Ferris, director of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “This is us swinging for the fences. It really is unique.”

Cancer immunotherapy, which stimulates a patient’s immune system to find and destroy its own cancer cells, was once the centerpiece of the federal “moonshot” program to accelerate the search for cures.

It has shown promising results in 15 to 20 percent of cancer patients, sometimes extending lives far beyond what could be expected from the standard treatments of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation while often causing fewer side effects. The Food and Drug Administration approved the first cancer immunotherapy drug, ipilimumab, in 2011.

There are two main types of cancer immunotherapy treatments: checkpoint modulator drugs and cell therapies. The drugs are designed to awaken immune cells within a patient’s body to fight cancer. Cell therapies occur when doctors remove immune-boosting T cells from a patient, engineer them to fight cancer cells and infuse them back into a patient’s body.

Treatment known as CAR-T therapy was approved by the the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year for fighting cancer.

“The concept of harnessing one’s own immune system to fight cancer has been a paradigm shift in treatment,” Dr. Sandip Patel, assistant professor at the University of California San Diego Moores Cancer Center, told the Tribune-Review. “The premise behind cancer immunotherapy is giving your immune system the boost it needs to find and destroy cancer cells.”

The immune system is a network of cells and organs working together to defend the body against foreign substances, including viruses, bacteria and cancer cells.

“There have been cases where other treatments have been exhausted and a patient may not expect to live more than a few months,” Ferris said. “Immunotherapy treatment might create a Lazarus phemomenon: A body could look like a Christmas tree of tumors, and these things just melt away.”

Immunotherapy has worked well in treating melanoma, lung, head and neck, and bladder cancers, Ferris said. It’s been less effective in treating prostate and colon cancers.

Overall side effects of immunotherapy can be less severe than the nausea, weakness and hair loss associated with chemotherapy and radiation. However, some side effects can be severe, as immunotherapy sometimes stimulates the immune system to attack its own organs.

“The reason we put up with the side effects is, when immunotherapy works, a patient’s cancer can be in remission for years,” Patel said.

Cost remains a barrier. Some treatments cost up to $400,000, Patel said.

“We’re going to have to figure out a way to make it more cost feasible,” he said.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, [email protected] or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.