Patients at MU Health Care’s Ellis Fischel Cancer Center have access to the most innovative cancer treatments. One of the promising new advances is immunotherapy, a treatment in which the body’s own immune system is activated to fight cancer.
Because immunotherapy is continually being studied by physician-researchers at academic health systems such as MU Health Care, more immunotherapies are becoming available to patients.
Kevin Staveley-O’Carroll, MD, PhD, said recent advances have dramatically affected what he and his colleagues can offer patients.
“We’re able to design medical treatment based on a person’s unique cancer genetics now,” Staveley-O’Carroll said. “Immunotherapy, a precision medicine initiative, is the greatest breakthrough in cancer care in the past few decades, and we’re doing a lot of research right here that ultimately provides our patients with the best treatment options possible.”
When a new immunotherapy drug is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Ellis Fischel doctors can begin using it to treat patients. Ellis Fischel patients also have access to immunotherapy clinical trials, which give patients early exposure to a treatment that might work for them.
“Our team works together and discusses a patient’s cancer genetics at our weekly tumor boards,” Staveley-O’Carroll said. “Knowing the genetics gives us an advantage in deciding how to treat a cancer, and our team discussions help us decide the best treatment option for each patient, including precision medicine options like immunotherapy or targeted therapy. Many of these are clinical trials, which end up becoming the mainstay of treatment.”
Staveley-O’Carroll outlined five potential benefits of immunotherapy as a treatment option.
- It can work when other methods don’t. Sometimes a cancer won’t respond to chemotherapy or radiation, but it will respond to immunotherapy based on the cancer genetics.
- Combining therapies increases the chance of success. Using immunotherapy in combination with another treatment such as chemotherapy or targeted therapy can work when a single method fails.
- Patients might have more time to try new, successful drugs. Because immunotherapy drugs are being approved regularly, new treatments are available to patients every few months. This can give patients without other options extra time – even three or six months – until the next breakthrough is available.
- Patients may experience fewer side effects. Because immunotherapy only targets your immune system, you might not experience as many side effects as other treatments. Some of the more common side effects from chemotherapy — such as nausea, vomiting, mouth sores or hair loss — might not occur with immunotherapy.
- The future of health care is precision medicine. Immunotherapy is helping lay the groundwork for precision health, which will allow doctors to identify and prevent certain types of cancers and other conditions. With the upcoming opening of the NextGen Precision Health Institute, doctors and researchers will be able to create cancer treatment and prevention strategies that are tailored to each patient’s genetics, lifestyle and environment.
“It’s clear now that cancer tries to grow in our bodies every day,” Staveley-O’Carroll said. “Our immune system should stop it, but if the cancer outsmarts our immune system, we can now treat certain cancer types and delay or stop cancer growth with immunotherapy and other precision medicine options.”
Immunotherapy treatments are now available for patients with bladder, cervical, colorectal, gastrointestinal, head and neck, kidney, liver, lung, lymphoma, melanoma, multiple myeloma and skin cancers.