As Cancer Immunotherapy Month passes, BCRF reviews the history of cancer immunotherapy, its recent advancements and its role in breast cancer treatment.
The immune system is the body’s natural defense against foreign pathogens. Under normal conditions, the immune system works through a coordination of on and off switches that identify and destroy diseased and abnormal cells. Defects in the on/off switches can result in immune-related diseases where the immune system fails to recognize pathogens as foreign (e.g. HIV-AIDS) or where the immune system fails to recognize normal cells as “self” and launches an inappropriate attack on healthy systems (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis). Likewise, when normal cells mutate to become cancerous they may appear different from normal cells and activate an immune response. Conversely, cancer cells may disguise themselves and go undetected or deactivate the immune system to block an immune response.
What is Cancer Immunotherapy?
At its simplest, cancer immunotherapy involves harnessing a patient’s immune system to attack cancer cells. Scientists have known for more than a century that the immune system can detect and kill cancer cells, but successful cancer immunotherapy has been elusive for patients. An explosion of research more recently has increased our understanding of immune- and tumor-cell biology and unveiled potential ways to unmask tumor cells and make them visible to the immune system. Major discoveries in immune-targeted therapies are leading the way in a new era of cancer immunotherapy and clinical trials are ongoing in different cancer types including breast cancer.
Where is Cancer Immunotherapy Today?
There are several immune-based strategies being pursued as potential anti-cancer therapies. These include cancer vaccines, adoptive cell transfer, and drugs that modulate the immune system.
Immunotherapy for Breast Cancer
The success of immunotherapy in melanoma, lung and other cancers has spurred interest in pursuing these strategies in breast cancer. In fact, some recent studies have demonstrated that in addition to blocking the HER2 receptor to prevent growth of cancer cells, trastuzumab (FDA approved in 1998 for the treatment of HER2+ breast cancer) also recruits immune cells to attack the cancer cells. BCRF investigator Sherene Loi has shown that a better immune response is associated with better outcomes. A new clinical trial co-chaired by Dr. Loi is currently underway. Other trials include:
BCRF has been at the vanguard in breast cancer research since its founding 23 years ago and its commitment to fund innovative research. As a result, BCRF has played a role in every major clinical advancement in breast cancer. With the re-emergence of immunotherapy as a viable treatment for cancer, BCRF investigators are pursuing innovative research and clinical trials to explore its potential for breast cancer patients.
Last year, BCRF invested $6.5 million in immunology-related projects including studies to identify immune biomarkers that can ultimately be used to predict treatment response and new targeted and combination therapies that will hopefully lead to better outcomes in breast cancer. In addition to those mentioned above, BCRF investigators leading the way in this work include Karen Anderson, Susan Domchek, Elizabeth Jaffee, Annette Khaled, Silvia Formenti, Sandra Demaria, and Robert Vonderheide.
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