Learn about recent advances in the field of immunotherapy, including how some treatments are now being leveraged to combat other infectious diseases, including COVID-19.
Did you know that your best defense against illness and disease is already at work inside of you? Your immune system — a complex network of special cells, tissues, and organs — operates around the clock to detect and destroy any foreign material that it believes could cause you harm, including cancer cells. But, while your immune system does all it can to curb the growth and spread of cancer in the body, cancer cells are sneaky and usually have ways to evade detection by the immune system. Immunotherapy can help health care providers give a patient’s immune system a bit of a “boost,” making it more effective in the fight against cancer.
June is National Cancer Immunotherapy Month. To commemorate the occasion, let’s take a closer look at how immunotherapy works; recent advancements that have been made in the field, including some groundbreaking discoveries from researchers supported by the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR); and how the success of immunotherapy treatments is now expanding beyond cancer to other infectious diseases, including COVID-19.
A Revolutionary Breakthrough in Cancer Treatment
Immunotherapy works by using the body’s own immune system to fight infections and diseases such as cancer. Treatments focus on helping the immune system recognize cancer cells, as well as strengthening its response to destroy them. The National Cancer Institute notes that there are five different types of immunotherapies currently available for patients who have been diagnosed with cancer, including:
- Checkpoint Inhibitors: These drugs block certain immune checkpoints that would otherwise activate to prevent an immune response from being too strong. With the immune checkpoints blocked, immune cells are able to respond more strongly to the presence of cancer cells in the body.
- T-cell Transfer Therapy: This therapy enhances the ability of the body’s T cells to fight cancer. Immune cells are extracted from the tumor and those identified as the most active against the tumor are further modified in the lab to better attack the cancer cells. Once the lab has grown enough cells, the cells are injected back into the body to fight the disease.
- Monoclonal Antibodies (mAbs): mAbs are lab-created immune system proteins that are designed to bind to specific targets on cancer cells. These proteins “mark” the cancer cells, allowing them to be more easily recognized (and destroyed) by the immune system.
- Cancer Vaccines: These vaccines are administered to help kick-off an immune response against certain cancers. They work by boosting the immune system’s response to the cancer cells.
- Immune System Modulators: These special drugs boost specific parts of the body’s immune system to help treat certain cancers.
To learn more about each type of immunotherapy, check out our “Immunotherapy: Where We’re Headed” blog post.
Although immunotherapy offers great promise for the treatment of certain cancers, it is important to understand that not all cancers will respond to immunotherapy, nor will all patients diagnosed with the same cancer receive the same results from a certain immunotherapy.
A Closer Look at New Developments in the Field
Like other cancer treatments, the results that patients will experience with immunotherapy are not always predictable. While some patients experience tremendous success following treatment — including NFCR supporter Melinda Bacchini, who credits immunotherapy with saving her life — others are left still searching for other options.
The National Cancer Institute notes that current research in the field is aimed at uncovering solutions to immunotherapy resistance, identifying ways to predict patients’ responses to immunotherapy, learning more about how cancer cells avoid detection by the immune system, and developing ways to reduce the side effects associated with immunotherapy treatments. In January, the Cancer Research Institute summarized some of the most important advances in immunotherapy research from 2019, including:
- Approval of the first checkpoint immunotherapy for breast cancer
- Early success of a new combination immunotherapy/chemotherapy treatment for pancreatic cancer
- Expansion of CAR T-cell therapy research, which has traditionally focused on blood cancers, to solid cancers
- Emergence of biomarkers as a rapidly growing area of research in immunotherapy
In addition, a study published in March by researchers at the University of Cardiff found that MR1-restricted T-cells can be used to broaden both the types of cancer and patients that can be treated using this T-cell immunotherapy. And, in February, NFCR awarded its 2019 Szent-Gyorgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research to Steven A. Rosenberg, MD, PhD, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute, who has long been considered one of the “fathers of cancer immunotherapy.” His research has significantly contributed to numerous advances in the field, including the development of one of the first FDA-approved adoptive cell cancer therapies for lymphoma in 2017.
NFCR has also been proud to support Wayne Marasco, MD, PhD, professor in the Department of Cancer Immunology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. A world-renowned antibody engineering expert, with the support of NFCR Marasco experienced great success developing mAbs that attach to carbonic anhydrase IX (CAIX) — a special protein commonly found in renal cell carcinoma — to halt the growth of cancer cells and creating a combination immunotherapy treatment that shows promise for the treatment of metastatic kidney cancer.
A Glimmer of Hope in the Midst of a Worldwide Pandemic
While immunotherapy is known to offer hope to patients confronting a cancer diagnosis, new evidence suggests treatments might also hold promise for individuals battling other illnesses, including COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which has rapidly evolved into a global pandemic and resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 people to-date.
The Cancer Research Institute notes that a number of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 have experienced symptoms similar to those associated with a condition called cytokine release syndrome (CRS). CRS is characterized by excessive inflammation that damages an individual’s tissues and organs, and is known to affect patients who have been diagnosed with cancer and have received CAR T-cell immunotherapy. Previous research examining cancer patients who were diagnosed with CRS indicates that blocking the activity of the cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) can significantly alleviate the symptoms associated with the condition. As a result, researchers are now exploring whether the same medications used to control CRS in patients diagnosed with cancer can be used to treat patients diagnosed with COVID-19 who present with similar symptoms.
Other potential treatments inspired by cancer immunotherapy that are now being investigated for COVID-19 include cell-based therapeutic vaccines and a novel treatment that involves taking blood from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and using the virus-targeting antibodies present in those patients’ immune systems to help others currently battling the illness.
Although it is not as commonly used as other cancer treatments, such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, immunotherapy can offer great hope to patients diagnosed with certain cancers. Advances in the field continue to spotlight the many different ways this novel treatment can benefit not only patients diagnosed with cancer, but also those diagnosed with other serious infections and illnesses, including COVID-19. Please continue to visit NFCR’s website to learn about the latest developments in immunotherapy and consider supporting the work of our scientists, many of whom are on the frontlines conducting research that will benefit patients facing critical illnesses.