The body has a remarkable ability to defend itself against disease using a highly complex network of organs, tissues, and cells commonly known as the immune system. Most people recognize the vital role the immune system performs in protecting the body from harmful microbes, especially now with COVID-19 making daily headlines.
However, the immune system can do much more than fight off invading viruses and bacteria. It can also be harnessed in a variety of ways to help fight cancer. This exciting new frontier in cancer treatment—called cancer immunotherapy—involves the use of different techniques to “rev up” the immune system so it kills cancer cells, prevents cancer from developing, or slows an existing cancer’s rate of growth and metastasis.
According to Shaili Desai, MD, of The Toledo Clinic Cancer Centers, checkpoint inhibitors are currently the most commonly used form of immunotherapy and a major focus of research studies. Checkpoints are proteins that the body produces naturally in order to prevent an overly robust immune response that kills healthy cells. Cancers can exploit this process by actually producing an immune checkpoint protein. “For example, certain cancers express a checkpoint called PD-L1 on their surfaces, which prevents the immune system from killing tumor cells. If we block that protein with a checkpoint inhibitor, the immune system can do its job and kill the cancer,” she says.
Dr. Desai notes that two of the more commonly used checkpoint inhibitors are Keytruda and Opdivo. “There are also ongoing clinical trials for new drugs that inhibit checkpoints in different ways while researchers try to determine whether different combinations of checkpoint inhibitors might be more effective than any of them used individually,” she adds.
Of course, checkpoint inhibitors are just one form of cancer immunotherapy. Other examples of this revolutionary approach to cancer treatment include the use of monoclonal antibodies that attach to certain proteins on cancer cells and flag them for destruction, the use of genetically modified viruses that trigger the immune system to attack cancer cells, and the use of vaccines to train the immune system to recognize and attack substances called antigens that are specific to certain cancers.
Several forms of cancer seem to respond well to immunotherapy, including melanoma, lung cancer, bladder cancer, certain breast cancers, head and neck cancer, and various other malignancies. In addition, immunotherapy compares very favorably to chemotherapy when it comes to side effects. “Traditional chemotherapy kills both good and bad cells, which can cause side effects such as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and hair loss. With immunotherapy, patients don’t experience those problems. Plus, immunotherapy is better tolerated by older patients and patients with other pre-existing medical problems. Any side effects that do occur with cancer immunotherapy tend to be autoimmune-related, such as pneumonitis, thyroid issues, liver issues, diarrhea associated with colitis, adrenal insufficiencies, and/or rash,” says Dr. Desai.
Looking forward, Dr. Desai sees a very promising future in the realm of cancer treatment, with a lot more immunotherapy drugs becoming available thanks to ongoing clinical studies. “That means patients can expect even more effective treatment and enjoy the highest possible quality of life, especially older patients who can’t tolerate standard chemotherapy,” she says.
The Toledo Clinic Cancer Centers, located at 4126 N. Holland Sylvania Road, Suite 105, also provides imaging, laboratory, chemotherapy and IV services. The cancer center consists of 8 medical and 2 radiation oncologists along with 7 nurse practitioners and 4 research nurses. The cancer center also has satellite centers in Maumee, Napoleon, Bowling Green, Wauseon, and Monroe.
The Toledo Clinic Cancer Centers has earned Patient-Centered Specialty Practice level 3 recognition and Oncology Medical Home recognition from the National Committee for Quality Assurance. Oncology homes align systems and resources with coordinated care focused on cancer patients and their needs. This reduces fragmentation, supports shared decision making, and improves the patient experience. They are the first oncology practice in the state of Michigan and the second oncology practice in the state of Ohio to receive this recognition.
For more information, please call The Toledo Clinic Cancer Centers at 419-479-5605. ❦