Immunotherapy: The next frontier in cancer treatment

Guvensoyler has already been through two rounds of chemotherapy, and multiple surgeries.

“He came to us, as do all of our patients, having exhausted what modern medicine can offer,” said Dr. Rosenberg. ”And our goal is not to practice today’s medicine, but to create the medicine of tomorrow.”

And that, he believes, would be immunotherapy.

Just as was done with Ezzy, Guvensoyler’s white blood cells were “taught” in the lab to recognize his specific cancer type. A month later, he gets back his juiced-up cells -- 90 billion of them put into battle.

“You can just imagine those cells chewing up the tumor when they go in there,” Dr. Rosenberg said.

“Definitely feeling very hopeful,” said Guvensoyler. “I mean, to draw the lottery and actually be part of this trial is just an incredible opportunity in itself.”

Now he’s waiting to see if those cells did their job.

The highly-personalized treatment that patients like Guvensoyler and Ezzy Pineda received is still only available in clinical trials.  But there’s another type of immunotherapy that’s available now in hospitals across the country. FDA-approved drugs called checkpoint inhibitors are being used to fight certain types of cancers of the kidney, bladder, lungs and more, with especially positive results for melanoma.

While effective treatment for widespread (or metastatic) cancer remains elusive, doctors are hopeful they’re at least on the right path.

Dr. LaPook asked, “Right now, in the spectrum of cancer treatment, what percentage can be addressed by immunotherapy?”

“If you look at all cancer patients, perhaps 10 percent can be helped by immunotherapy today,” Dr. Rosenberg replied. “But it’s getting better every day.”

Last Tuesday, Guvensoylar returned to the National Cancer Institute for a first check-up since receiving his cell transfusion five weeks earlier. “I just have that comfort in terms of, like, I’ve done everything I can,” he said. 

Dr. Rosenberg went over Guvensoylar’s X-rays: “We compared them to the X-rays that you had before we started the treatment.  And there was, as you know, rapid growth of the tumor. But that’s been completely arrested now. The current X-rays are absolutely stable. There’s no evidence of any growth of any lesions. So that’s good news. Now, we want to see these tumors go away. But sometimes that takes time.”

The doctor said the news was reasonable. “Cancer patients deserve optimistic doctors. So, I’m optimistic.”

For now, patients like Ezzy Pineda remain the exception, but Drs. Rosenberg and Curran are hopeful, and continue to explore the boundaries of this new frontier … one previously incurable patient at a time.

Dr. LaPook asked Ezzy, “So you’re lying in bed at night -- what’s going through your head?”

“That the good thing is that I’m still alive,” she replied. “That I could live a normal life again, that I’ll be all better and probably more stronger than have been before.”

     
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