Tomorrow, the world’s top cancer doctors—including many who work with the Cancer Research Institute (CRI)—will convene in Chicago for the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).
Earlier this year, ASCO named cancer immunotherapy the Advance of the Year because of its amazing success. The conference, which begins three days into Cancer Immunotherapy Month, will surely showcase these successes. Those assembled will also strategize about how to move immunotherapy forward: how to develop better treatments that target more cancers and help save more lives.
Much of that will focus on personalized approaches for patients. Every person is different, and so is every cancer. The key to cancer’s identity—and how to stop it—lies in its DNA, where mutations enable malignant behaviors. Luckily, those mutations also expose cancer as “foreign,” and allow for anti-cancer immune responses.
That is the crux of immunotherapy, which CRI has pioneered since 1953. Cancer cells are fundamentally different from our normal cells. Our immune systems can already attack virus-infected cells that look different. Immunotherapy, which exists in several forms, leverages these facts and enables the immune system to root out abnormal cancer cells.
One widely successful type of immunotherapy, called checkpoint inhibition, promotes a stronger immune response by allowing immune cells to remain activated even in the presence of pro-tumor signals that would normally shut them down. Checkpoint inhibition—which targets various “immuno-suppressive” checkpoint pathways such as PD-1, CTLA-4, and IDO—has benefitted the most patients thus far, including former president Jimmy Carter. In melanoma, it has doubled 5-year survival rates in advanced melanoma patients.
In general, the more mutations a tumor has, the more likely checkpoint immunotherapy will work against it. In highly mutated tumors, it is sometimes enough to just give the immune system a non-specific boost via checkpoint inhibition. Unfortunately, not all types of cancers respond to checkpoint immunotherapy, and figuring out how to overcome this is the current challenge.
While checkpoint inhibitors have produced amazing results thus far, early evidence suggests that in combination with other treatments—both old and new—they can be even better. Many of these exciting checkpoint results will be presented in the coming days.
Furthermore, other types of immunotherapies—such as cell-based treatments and other antibodies that target non-checkpoint immune pathways—are also producing meaningful breakthroughs in more patients, with more types of cancers. Combinations of complementary treatments, chosen for their capacity to treat certain tumor characteristics, will likely prove crucial in the future.
To conquer cancer, we must tailor treatments to individual tumors. We can decode cancer’s identity, but its diversity and flexibility render many treatments ineffective. Fortunately, we can enlist the immune system, which has its own diversity and flexibility. More than any other strategy yet, immunotherapy appears capable of neutralizing cancer’s complexity.
Over the next few days, signs of the future of cancer immunotherapy will be revealed, and we look forward to sharing these exciting advances with you via our blog, so be sure to check back regularly!