Immunotherapy makes strides in cancer treatment

Immunotherapy is a form of treatment that jump-starts a person's own immune system to fight a disease. Using immunotherapy to fight cancer has long been a goal of oncologists and scientists, and a hope for patients and their families. According to Forbes contributor Emily Mullin, immunotherapy research is finallybeginning to see promising results in many forms.

Scientific American joined 1,400 people who attended the first-ever International Cancer Immunotherapy Conference in New York during the middle of September. The conference had a goal to share knowledge and information to advance the efforts of those working toward finding effective cancer treatments. Mullin said immunotherapy is now a multibillion-dollar industry, as companies big and small work to develop things like cancer vaccines, checkpoint inhibitors and many others.

The past year has seen immunotherapy begin to make big strides toward being more integrated in cancer treatments, Scientific American reported. Jill O'Donnell-Tormey, CEO of the Cancer Research Institute, explained that 2015 has seen many advances in immunotherapies.

"… We are now finally seeing what I think is just the tip of the iceberg of the full potential of what immunotherapy will do to cancer treatment," O'Donnell-Tormey told Mullin. "… I think it is really a paradigm shift in how cancer is going to be treated. I think most cancers diagnosed in the next decade or beyond will be treated with some form of immunotherapy."

Two new drugs approved
So far this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved of two immunotherapy drugs: Opdivo, or nivolumab, from Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Keytruda, or pembrolizumab, from Merck.

Opdivo is a treatment for metastatic squamous non-small cell lung cancer. According to a statement from BMS, a Phase III clinical trial found the risk of death was reduced by 41 percent through use of Opdivo.

"Bristol-Myers Squibb is committed to patients with lung cancer, and we are pleased to offer Opdivo as the first immuno-oncology therapy for patients who have previously treated metastatic squamous NSCLC," Lamberto Andreotti, CEO of BMS, said in a press release. "Because lung cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States, with high mortality, there is a significant need for treatments that extend survival …"

Keytruda was developed by Merck to treat melanoma patients, according to a press release. The Motley Fool explained Keytruda is a checkpoint inhibitor, which increases the immune system's T-cell response to tumors. Merck is hoping to expand the drug so advanced non-small cell lung cancer patients can utilize it as well. The company is currently waiting for the FDA's approval of the expansion.

Dangers of immunotherapy
Giving the body's immune system a boost to fight off infection and disease sounds like a straightforward concept. Scientific American reported there is a delicate balance to be struck when strengthening the immune system's response, though. Unleashing it on a patient's body too strongly could have fatal consequences.

"We have had some treatment-related deaths," Steven Rosenberg, a cancer researcher with the National Cancer Institute, said in his keynote address at the immunotherapy conference, according to Scientific American. "That's been true in the field as well as in our own experience."

While there have been setbacks in this line of research, Rosenberg and many others like him believe the field is beginning to make big improvements. O'Donnell-Tormey told Mullin finding the right combination of treatments for certain cancers in each unique patient will be the next big step in making immunotherapy more effective. The right combination could be different immunotherapies, or an immunotherapy paired with a drug commonly being used today. She explained that every patient will be different, so treatments will vary.

"The Cancer Research Institute feels very strongly that the future of cancer immunotherapy is in combinations," O'Donnell-Tormey told Mullin. "Our whole clinical strategy is focused on figuring out the best and the next combinations of immunotherapies … That's what I'm most excited about. I think there's a lot of opportunity and a lot of potential here, but I think scientists will have to go back to the laboratory to understand a little bit more of the mechanisms of how to do this."