Immunotherapy: A Next-Generation Cancer Treatment

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A Cutting Edge Cancer Treatment Based on a Century-Old Idea
Excitement is growing around a new cancer treatment approach called immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of our immune system to fight cancer. Just this past year, the FDA approved new immunotherapy drugs for the treatment of melanoma, lung cancer, bladder cancer, lymphoma, and kidney cancer.
Although cancer immunotherapy has recently attracted widespread attention, its origins go back to the 1890s when William Coley, a surgeon at New York Cancer Hospital (the predecessor to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center), developed an early form of immunotherapy. He injected tumors with a cocktail of inactive bacteria, occasionally seeing good results, but the practice eventually fell out of favor.
In the 1960s and 1970s, research by Memorial Sloan Kettering investigators led to the understanding of how certain white blood cells — immune cells known as T cells or T lymphocytes — can be trained to recognize cancer.
Immunotherapy got its start at MSK
Scientific Breakthroughs Pave the Way for Immunotherapy
In recent years, a number of scientific breakthroughs have helped breathe renewed life into cancer immunotherapy. Clinical trials conducted at Memorial Sloan Kettering and elsewhere have shown notable successes for this approach.
One of the pivotal milestones in immunotherapy research is the work of immunologist James Allison, who showed that a molecule called CTLA-4 — a protein receptor on the surface of T cells — acts as a brake on T cells, preventing them from carrying out immune attacks. He later developed an antibody that blocks CTLA-4 and showed that “releasing” that brake allows T cells to destroy cancer in mice.
Anti-CTLA-4 eventually became ipilimumab (Yervoy®), a drug approved in 2011 for the treatment of metastatic melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. Dr. Allison, together with Memorial Sloan Kettering physician-scientist Jedd Wolchok, helped guide the development of ipilimumab from the first laboratory studies through the clinical trials that led to its approval.
Helping Patients Today
Great promise is being shown by this approach, known as immune checkpoint blockade therapy. Memorial Sloan Kettering has played a leading role in developing and testing these promising immunotherapies, which, in addition to ipilimumab, include nivolumab (Opdivo®), pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) and atezolizumab (Tecentriq®). The treatments have produced remarkable results, controlling cancer completely in some patients with advanced melanoma, as well as in patients with lung, kidney, lymphoma, and bladder cancers.
T cells can be taught to fight cancer
Hope for the Future
Although this approach does not work for everyone, research is underway to help make immunotherapy more widely effective. It’s yielding important insights about how immunotherapy drugs work and how they could be improved.
For example, a number of clinical trials are now looking more closely at the effectiveness of combining immunotherapy drugs in order to boost the number of responders. Investigators are also working to better understand how treatment responses relate to the underlying biology of a tumor. The goal is to use characteristics of the tumor to choose the right therapy for the right patient.
As research continues, there will be new opportunities for more patients to benefit from immunotherapy — a promising approach that is transforming the way we think about cancer care.
Learn more at mskcc.org/immunotherapy
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