‘Breakthrough’ cancer treatment hailed, misconceptions debunked

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Immunotherapy has been hailed as a new breakthrough in the medical field, especially in oncology, according to a cancer center based in Singapore.

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A form of treatment using an individual’s immune system to fight cancerous cells, it is, the center said, the latest cancer treatment modality that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“The approval of immunotherapy promises new hope in cancer research and treatment,” Dr. Ang Peng Tiam, Medical Director and Senior Consultant of Medical Oncology at Parkway Cancer Centre, said recently.

He was one of the recipients of the National Science and Technology Awards (1996) for his outstanding contributions in the research of gene immunotherapy in gynaecological cancers.

“Cancer treatment modalities have evolved over the years. Approved treatments include radiotherapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy. Each modality brings to patients a hope in treatment and a step forward in the battle against cancer. The addition of immunotherapy marks a major milestone in oncology.”

Ang said “[c]ancer cells have the ability to ‘camouflage’ themselves in such a way that our body’s immune system is unable to detect these ‘rogue cells’ and destroy them.”

“Through immunotherapy, the immune system can be enhanced to detect the cancerous cells more effectively. This treatment can aid in stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, prevent cancer from spreading to other parts of the body, helping the immune system work better at destroying cancer cells,” he added.

Immunity breakdown
People with cancer, according to Ang, experience a breakdown of the immune system, which inhibits the body’s natural defenses and ability to recognize cancerous cells and destroy them.

With immunotherapy, he said, the immune system can be “taught” or “trained” to recognize the cancerous cells through customized vaccines and other methods.

Immunotherapy, Ang added, boosts the body’s immune system and primes it to recognize tumour antigens that have previously “evaded” detection.

When these cancerous cells are detected, he said, the immune system effectively eliminates them systematically throughout the body.

Through this method of biotherapy, the immune system “is trained to recognize and target these cancer cells over time, providing a more sustainable and durable protection for a longer period of time as well.”

In a clinical trial involving 676 patients with metastatic melanoma (skin cancer), researchers found that “the treatments have helped extend and improve overall survival in patients with previously treated melanoma from 6.4 months to 10 months.”

Other studies have also shown that “after one year, the overall survival rate in patients was 94 percent, and the two-year survival rate stood at 88 percent.”

Additionally, “in the small percentage of patients who achieved clinical benefit and then relapse months or years later, re-treatment with immunotherapy has proven to garner significant secondary responses in more than 50 percent of patients.”

Immunotherapy is a relatively new form of anti-cancer treatment that has been reported to yield promising results in recent years.

Although seen as promising, this new treatment modality does not signify the end of humanity’s struggle against cancer.

“It is important for patients to know, that similar to all medical treatments, there are certain limitations to what immunotherapy can achieve,” warns Ang.

“It is our duty and responsibility to share and clear misconceptions surrounding immunotherapy.”

One misconception is that mmunotherapy suits all cancer types.

Immunotherapy as a new treatment modality has shown promising prognosis especially for lung cancer and melanoma patients. Those diagnosed with early stages of cancer or those who are responding well to other treatments should continue, not switch to immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy has also been shown to be effective in treating Hodgkin’s disease (a form of lymphatic cancer), and some efficacy in treatment of triple-negative breast cancer, colon cancer, gastric cancer and head and neck cancers.

Another misconception is that immunotherapy suits all cancer patients.

Researchers and clinicians are still just beginning to learn how best to deploy immunotherapy in treatment of cancer. At this time, there is no place for use of these agents in early stage cancer.

Conventional therapies
In those with advanced or metastatic cancer, especially those who have failed conventional therapies, immunotherapy offers new hope.

Sill another misconception is that immunotherapy has no side effects or downtime.

Treatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy can sometimes cause serious short-term and long-term side effects.

By and large, the toxicity profile of immunotherapy is “significantly less and considerably safer.”

As the primary action of immunotherapy lies in “taking the brakes off” the immune system, the side effects of such treatment arise from injury to normal tissue caused by the one’s own immune system. These include pneumonitis, causing shortness of breath, skin rashes, transient fall in blood pressure and flu-like symptoms.

As opposed to standard chemotherapy and targeted agents, the positive responses through immunotherapy are sometimes evident even after discontinuing the treatment.

Ang comments, “Although clinical trials and studies on immunotherapy are still under way, this form of treatment will hopefully provide patients with an alternative that has higher effectiveness with lower side effects. We look forward to potentially delivering more effective therapy for cancer patients while reducing the injury to the human body. Opportunities in combination therapies will be worth looking into as well.”

Parkway Cancer Centre “offers comprehensive cancer treatment with a highly skilled, multi-disciplinary team comprising of medical doctors, nurses, counsellors and other para-medical professionals to meet the specific needs of cancer patients.”

ROMY P. MARIÑAS

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