When it comes to cancer treatment, most people are familiar with the treatment options of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. But today, there is a fourth leg of cancer care which involves a new class of drugs that stimulate a patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer. Known as immuno-oncology or immunotherapy, these drugs contain antibodies or substances that target and inhibit certain proteins to interfere with the growth and spread of cancer cells in the body.

“The idea with immunotherapy is that we are taking the immune system and giving it a second chance. If you think of the immune system like a sleeping bear – we want to make it angry enough to wake up and attack the cancer cells,” said Dr. Timothy Tyler, Director of Pharmacy, Laboratory and Oncology Supportive Care Services at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Desert Regional Medical Center.

“With immunotherapy, we are seeing a doubling of the survival curve. We’re not curing cancer, but we are pushing it on the curve to the level of a chronic disease,” said Dr. Tyler.

In two pivotal studies 29% and 23% of patients treated for advanced non-small cell lung cancer with a drug called Opdivo  were reaching the two-year survival mark as compared to 16% and 8% two-year survival with chemotherapy.

“It’s a paradigm shift. In oncology in the 1800s, we had radiation. Chemotherapy started in the 1950s and in the following decades, we’ve developed toxic drugs that kill cancer, but damage some of the healthy patient, not just the cancer,” said Dr. Tyler. “All the billions of dollars that went into AIDS research have had rich dividends in oncology. Cancer and the immune response are much more intricately linked than we ever imagined,” he said.

There are five FDA-approved immunotherapy drugs for cancer – several of which have multiple indications. These drugs can treat everything from skin cancer to lung, neck, kidney, bladder, head and neck cancer—and even Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

So, how effective are these drugs?

There are more than 800 clinical trials currently being conducted worldwide to determine the effectiveness of immunotherapy cancer drugs. Researchers also want to know if the existing immunotherapy drugs will be more effective if they are sequenced with another immunotherapy drug or given in combination with chemotherapy.

The Comprehensive Cancer Center at Desert Regional Medical Center is currently recruiting patients for the lung – ALCHEMIST Trial to study the effectiveness of Nivolumab in early stage non-small cell lung cancer. To learn more, visit www.desertcancercenter.com or call (760) 416.4800.

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