In the war on cancer, we are living in unique and wonderful times. The last several years have shown the development of several new approaches to the treatment of cancer that are proving to be very promising and effective.
In the past, the three most important strategies in the treatment of cancer involved surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. With a better understanding of our immune system, we’ve been able to develop four new specific strategies that are targeting and treating cancers better than ever.
The immune system is incredibly powerful, and if it is turned on completely the immune system can attack normal tissues causing widespread destruction and even death. As a result, the immune system operates with a safety guard, a kind of “braking system,” to keep it from turning full on and launching an attack on healthy cells.
These safeguards are called “checkpoints.” Many cancer cells exploit this protective mechanism by sending signals to the immune system that they are normal; they are okay; don’t attack. Because of this trick, many cancer cells can avoid detection and destruction from the immune system.
Scientists have now discovered ways of introducing drugs made from custom-made proteins that rev up and turn on the immune system. By allowing the immune system to pass the checkpoints, they are called “checkpoint inhibitors.”
The immune system, specifically the T-cells of the immune system, have to pass through several checkpoints before they can be unleashed and turned on. These checkpoints are for our safety.
If you can get around the checkpoints, you can turn the immune system on to attack. And that’s what the checkpoint inhibitors do; they rev up the immune system so that the T-cells can attack the malignancies.
The war on cancer has had significant advances, especially to liquid- or blood-born cancer such as certain types of leukemia and lymphoma. However, when it comes to solid malignancies such as cancer of the lungs and skin, many of the checkpoint inhibitors are providing high hopes, especially in clinical trials. In fact, almost 25 percent of patients with advanced solid tumor malignancies have shown promising remissions and or excellent responses to these types of treatments.
Immune cell vaccine
The second strategy in attacking cancers is a cancer cell vaccine. In this type of system, specific immune cells that normally patrol the system looking for abnormal cells and malignant cells are taken from the patient and mixed with their tumor cells, outside the body.
This process educates these types of immune attack cells, called dendritic cells, to recognize the malignant cells better than they did inside the body. Then they are put back into the body, and they attack cancer. This is partially similar to the way vaccinations work, hence the term “immune cell vaccine.”
Combination of chimeric cell therapy
The third type of strategy in treating malignancies involves something called the combination cell or “chimeric cell.” There are particular types of immune cells called T-cells. There is a pretty slick trick where they extract a T-cell from a patient’s body and mix it with a specific virus.
This virus infects the T-cell and causes it to have special sticky proteins on its surface. These sticky proteins are excellent at recognizing specific malignancies, especially those of the liquid form, that is, blood-born malignancies such as leukemia and lymphoma.
These combination cells float freely in the blood and recognize blood-born malignancies. They bind to the malignant cells in the blood and destroy them. The reason they call them chimeric cells is because they are a combination of two types of cells — an immune cell and a virus.
The fourth new strategy in the war on cancer involves something entirely unique. It involves something called the microbiome. The microbiome is composed of all the bacteria that live within our bodies, typically in a safe and friendly manner.
It includes but isn’t limited to most of the bacteria that live in our gastrointestinal tract (gut). These friendly bacteria live within us in a complementary manner and often can produce different proteins and chemical signals that assist our immune system in doing a better job.
Many people eat certain yogurts called probiotics to increase the nature of good bacteria in their gastrointestinal tract. In fact, it’s found that certain compositions of bacteria seem to be present when the immune system does a better job of fighting off malignancies.
Scientists are right now studying the different types of probiotics and bacteria that can live in our bodies that will support immune health and the ability to fight malignancies. The microbiome is so important to our overall health that I view it as another organ!
Although the war on cancer is not over, I’m delighted to report that right now we have some of the best tools ever available in the fight against cancer. In fact, former president Jimmie Carter used some of these tools to have a complete remission of malignant melanoma that metastasized to his brain.
If you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it’s not the same prognosis that it was even a few short years ago. Talk to your physician about a combination of therapies including traditional surgery, radiation and chemotherapy along with the four new strategies discussed today, including checkpoint inhibitors, immune cell vaccines, chimeric cell treatment for blood malignancies, and manipulation of a patient’s microbiome, the friendly bacteria that live within us that can augment our immune system.
The war on cancer has never looked better than it does today.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.