Immunotherapy takes center stage at annual cancer meeting in Philly

    This week, Philadelphia has been crowded with even more oncologists and cancer researchers than usual.

    The Pennsylvania Convention Center is hosting the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research, where a lot of the enthusiasm this year has focused on immunotherapies — drugs or other treatments that spur a patient’s own defense system to recognize and fight off tumor cells.

    “It’s exciting because they’re working,” said Andy Simmons of Clovis Oncology. “You’re seeing patients which have durable responses for many years.”

    Fellow attendee Steven Young, president of the Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute in California, said there is still a long way to go, but there’s reason to be optimistic.

    “You start hearing the ‘C’ word, cure, potentially coming — at least in sight,” he said. “That had always been 10 to 15 years away.”

    Immunotherapy takes a variety of forms, and includes the revolutionary idea of removing patients’ T cells and reprogramming them to target tumors. University of Pennsylvania researcher Carl June, who has pioneered the technique, received an award for his contributions at the meeting Tuesday.

    Other immune-based treatments, known as checkpoint inhibitors, make sure existing T cells aren’t stopped from doing their job. So far, the results are encouraging.

    Robert Vonderheide, also at Penn, presented new results of a small clinical trial testing a new combination of immune drugs in advanced melanoma patients.

    “One drug cuts the brake,” he said, “and the other steps on the gas.”

    Out of a total of 24 participants, two patients went into complete remission and four others improved.

    “These types of extraordinary responses achieved by immunotherapy are actually becoming ordinary,” said Vonderheide. “Patients are walking away from their cancer forever.”

    More research is needed to understand why only some patients respond to these treatments. But the good news, he said, is that the combo is just as safe for patients as the individual drugs.

    “We really have a sense that it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what we’ll see in the coming years,” said Vonderheide. “I don’t think this is a fad. I think this is real. I think this will be absolutely a new standard paradigm for treating patients with cancer.”

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