New therapies helping body fight disease

doctor talking to patient

Your immune system is your body’s defense. Its cells provide protection from ailments like colds and flu, chicken pox and tonsillitis — even cancer. But the protection isn’t perfect. Different types of cancers can “outsmart” the immune system, making it challenging to fight their dangerous cells.

In these cases, the immune system needs a little help to fight back. Medical experts are harnessing the power of innovative therapies to do so through immunotherapy — giving the body’s natural disease-fighting defense a boost.

“Immunotherapy is an entirely new form of cancer treatment,” said Jonathan Bleeker, M.D., a Sanford Cancer Center medical oncologist. “The goal of immunotherapy is to stimulate a patient’s immune system to be able to better recognize and attack cancer cells.”

Sanford Health currently offers more than 20 immunotherapy clinical trials. Today, these studies are focused on various cancers. As research advances, so does the potential to take on other diseases.

“Cancer cells can develop multiple ways to avoid being killed by the body’s natural cancer-fighting cells,” said Dr. Bleeker, who focuses on gastrointestinal cancers. “Sometimes, cancer cells can ‘hide’ from cancer fighting cells or even ‘turn off’ the immune system’s attacks. Immunotherapy works to make the immune system better at recognizing cancer cells and to prevent the cancer cell from turning these cancer fighting cells off.”

Immunotherapies are increasingly becoming standard of care treatments for cancer, including advanced non-small cell lung cancer, where immunotherapy can be used instead of chemotherapy in some cases.

“We have learned that cancer expresses different markers that can help us predict treatment response,” said Sanford Cancer Center medical oncologist Steven Powell, M.D. “One example is in non-small cell lung cancer. Some of these cancers have a higher level of a marker of immune resistance called PD-L1. In these cancers, we can use immunotherapy to overcome this resistance. Research has shown that in these cases we are better off using immunotherapy than chemotherapy.”

This area of research has spawned the field of precision oncology, which matches patients with a treatment that has the best chance of working.

Dr. Powell’s focus is on head and neck, lung, and skin cancers. He is also an active researcher focused on immunotherapy and precision oncology treatments. He advises all patients with advanced cancer to seek out clinical trials. These trials can offer patients access to the newest cancer treatments, which often include immunotherapy and precision oncology therapy. While these have traditionally only been offered at major centers, like MD Anderson Cancer Center or the Mayo Clinic, major changes have been made to bring these options to patients in the region. Sanford Health offers more than 290 clinical trials for patients with all types of cancer. These trials give early access to the next generation of cancer treatments, in some cases years before the general public.

Drugs administered for immunotherapy are advancing rapidly. They are generally tolerated well and have side effects treated best when caught early.

Posted In Cancer, Genetics, Health Information