7 million people die of cancer every year worldwide. The immune system in the body struggles in its attempt to contain cancer; unfortunately, it fights a losing battle. Tumors originate from healthy cells that have lost control of their growth abilities, and they are not seen as alien to our bodies. Nevertheless, killer immune cells have been found in cancerous tissue upon autopsy. This proves that our immune systems can’t compete against rapidly-spreading cancers.
Immunotherapy has been around since 1796 after Edward Jenner, an English physician and scientist, produced the 1st vaccine to prevent smallpox. In 1900, Paul Ehrlich, a German physician and scientist [later becoming a Nobel laureate], developed a scientific concept that he termed the “magic bullet”: that it could be possible to destroy the infectious agents that cause disease without inflicting harm upon the body. The 1st “magic bullet” was discovered in 1909 for the treatment of syphilis. The application of chemotherapy in treating cancer has a direct link to Jenner’s “magic bullet”.
Dr. Steven Rosenberg, the head of tumor immunology at the National Cancer Institute, developed immunotherapy for treating cancer during the late 1980s. This pioneer and his colleagues used specific killer immune cells, known as T-cells, to put the brakes on tumor growth. It’s success rate was only 15 – 20%. Most cancer patients still had to be treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
In 1996, James Allison, an immunologist at the University of California, Berkeley, identified how killer T-cells can be employed in successfully attacking cancerous tissue by blocking a protein receptor on the T-cell, known as CTLA-4, whose function is to be an immune checkpoint, thereby inhibiting the immune response. He worked with antibodies to shut down this T-cell inhibitory molecule leading to enhanced immune activity in curtailing cancer. Allison’s work led to the development of medications that became known as “checkpoint inhibitors”: drugs that allow killer T-cells to attack the newly-exposed cancer cells while sparing normal cells.
Several “checkpoint inhibitor” drugs have been approved by the FDA. These have shown to be successful in the treatment of skin melanoma and cancers of the lungs and kidneys. More than 1,500 immunotherapy medications for treating cancer are being researched; 2nd only to cholesterol drugs, e.g., statins, in the field of drug-development. In 10 years, it is predicted that immunotherapy will be the most valuable class of medications in history.
In fighting cancer, immunotherapy needs to be adapted to each person’s genetic characteristics attributed to the abnormal tissue. Thus, it requires the latest medications to be highly-personalized. Genome sequencing, i.e., determining the series of DNA present in the mitochondria of human cells, is an integral part of President Obama’s administration $1 billion “moon-shot” effort to cure cancer.
In April 2016, Napster co-founder Sean Parker has earmarked $250 million to hasten the development of immunotherapies. In the U.S., this involves the collaborative efforts of more than 40 research laboratories and 6 of the top cancer research centers. The Parker Institute for Cancer will promote the sharing of research outcomes, the coordination of clinical trials, the formation of common tissue banks, and the establishment of contracts with pharmaceutical companies in order to bring cancer biogenetics to the public.
Immunotherapies, involved in the biogenetic healing of tissues, will eventually save people from the toxic effects of chemotherapy and the years of follow-up surgeries. It is already saving lives in clinical trials. The results have been profound. In early trials with patients who have unresponsive types of B-cell leukemias and lymphomas, there have been up to 80% of complete remissions. Currently, there are over 3,400 immunotherapy trials in the U.S. and many more throughout the world. On average, 30% of people taking immunotherapy in pill form or intravenously are in remission.