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BCRF researcher Dr. Jedd Wolchok discusses immunotherapy in breast cancer care at the BCRF Annual Symposium.

Immunotherapy for Breast Cancer: Advances and Prevailing Challenges

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There has been a renewed excitement about cancer immunotherapy (IT), but while new IT approaches have been successful in some cancers including lung and melanoma, there has been much less success in patients with breast cancer. At the BCRF Symposium, Dr. Jedd Wolchok explained some of the reasons IT is more challenging in breast cancer. Both melanoma and lung cancer are easily recognizable by the immune system because they produce foreign-looking proteins that signal the immune system to attack the cells. By unleashing the immune system with therapies called checkpoint inhibitors the body can launch a robust immune response and destroy the tumor. 

The situation is different in breast cancer, he explained. Unlike melanoma or lung cancer cells, breast cancer cells look too similar to the normal cells and do not alert the immune system to send in cancer-killing immune cells. In order for checkpoint inhibitors to work, they need help.

Dr. Wolchok highlighted some of the exciting combinations that are being tested by BCRF investigators to improve response to immunotherapy in breast cancer, including combining checkpoint inhibitor therapy with radiation therapy, chemotherapy and HER2 therapies. Other novel techniques are also being explored, such as freezing the tumor cells, a process called cryoablation, which causes an acute immune response, making the tumor more susceptible to immune therapy. Other research by BCRF investigators includes vaccine development for both prevention and treatment and targeted therapies to prevent resistance to immunotherapy.

BCRF is investing more than $14 million in immune oncology research this year. You can read about some of these projects by reading the profiles of these investigators: Drs. Karen Anderson, Nora Disis, Laura Esserman, Zhen Fan, Silvia Formenti and Sandra Demaria, Leisha Emens and Elizabeth Jaffee, Johanna Joyce, Xiaole (Shirley) Liu, Sherene Loi, Heather McArthur, and Robert Vonderheide

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