4
Aug

Harnessing the Immune System to Fight Cancer

New drugs and methods of altering a patient’s own immune cells are helping some cancer patients — but not all — even when standard treatments fail.

Steve Cara expected to sail through the routine medical tests required to increase his life insurance in October 2014. But the results were devastating. He had lung cancer, medical at age 53. It had begun to spread, search and doctors told him it was inoperable.

A few years ago, they would have suggested chemotherapy. Instead, his oncologist, Dr. Matthew D. Hellmann of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, recommended an experimental treatment: immunotherapy. Rather than attacking the cancer directly, as chemo does, immunotherapy tries to rally the patient’s own immune system to fight the disease.

Uncertain, Mr. Cara sought a second opinion. A doctor at another major hospital read his scans and pathology report, then asked what Dr. Hellmann had advised. When the doctor heard the answer, Mr. Cara recalled, “he closed up the folder, handed it back to me and said, ‘Run back there as fast as you can.’”

Many others are racing down the same path. Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer, long a medical dream, is becoming a reality. Remarkable stories of tumors melting away and terminal illnesses going into remissions that last years — backed by solid data — have led to an explosion of interest and billions of dollars of investments in the rapidly growing field of immunotherapy. Pharmaceutical companies, philanthropists and the federal government’s “cancer moonshot” program are pouring money into developing treatments. Medical conferences on the topic are packed.

All this has brought new optimism to cancer doctors — a sense that they have begun tapping into a force of nature, the medical equivalent of splitting the atom.

“This is a fundamental change in the way that we think about cancer therapy,” said Dr. Jedd Wolchok, chief of melanoma and immunotherapeutics services at Memorial Sloan Kettering.