Using the Immune System to Fight Cancer
Twice a month, I have a wonderful late Wednesday afternoon group for women who have completed adjuvant treatment for breast cancer. This group is always one of my favorite parts of the week; the conversation is warm, supportive, wide-ranging, and helpful to us all. Yesterday we talked a lot about the future directions of cancer research, and there were a number of comments and questions about immunotherapy and the development of vaccines.
It makes a lot of sense, at least to us non-scientists, to think about using the body's natural defenses to fight cancer. Surely it sounds less ominous in terms of dire treatment side effects, and most of us would welcome successful therapies that allowed us to keep our hair and appetites.
This is an article from The New York Times, a conversation with Dr. James Allison from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Here is the beginning and then a link to read more about this hopeful and fascinating approach:
Arming the Immune System Against Cancer
James P. Allison is the chairman of the immunology department at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. His seminal research opened up a new field in cancer treatment: immunotherapy. Instead of poisoning a tumor or destroying it with radiation, Dr. Allison has pioneered ways to unleash the immune system to destroy a cancer.
Two years ago, Science magazine anointed immunotherapy as the “Breakthrough of the Year.” More recently, Dr. Allison, 66, won the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, often a precursor to a Nobel. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Q. The class of drugs you’ve helped invent has been hailed as one of the first truly new cancer
treatments in decades. What makes it so different?
A. It’s a bit counterintuitive. Till now, most cancer treatments — radiation, surgery, chemotherapy — attacked
tumors directly, with the goal of killing them. In the 1980s, my laboratory did work on how the T-cells of the immune system, which are the attack cells, latch onto the cells infected with viruses and bacteria and ultimately kill them. That research lead me to think that the immune
system could be unleashed to kill cancers.
Basically, I proposed that we should stop worrying about directly killing cancer cells and develop drugs to release those T-cells.