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Immunotherapy drugs that trick cancer into being cured

Scientists may have found a way to ‘cure’ cancer, or at the very least have found a way to dramatically extend cancer survival.

An experimental treatment, known as immuno-oncology (IO) is the most exciting development likely to breakthrough onto the cancer care scene for years. The American Society of Clinical Oncology were bowled over earlier this month by a wealth of promising clinical trial results showing how IO seems to ‘trick’ cancer into being ‘cured’.

IO differs from other forms of cancer treatment because it harnesses the body’s natural defences and unites them in a front to fight off tumours. Other modern treatments, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery bring in exterior weapons such as lab-created chemicals, scalpels and high-energy radiation in order to fight off the disease.

IO works by undermining the deceptive evasion tactics built into a tumour’s characteristics – where they can ‘hide’ from the body’s own immune system by disguising certain elements of their DNA to feel like normal cells. Some IO treatments work by unmasking these tumours, allowing the immune system to find, attack and destroy them, other reinforce the immune system’s own weaponry, allowing it’s seeker-and-killer cells to be more effective.

David Hafler, an integral part of the research team at Harvard and Yale University said, “It’s [the research] has been absolutely dramatic to watch play out. The cat-and-mouse game that goes on between tumours and the immune system – I didn’t know it was that important. No one did.”

The idea of using immunotherapy to treat cancer first emerged in the early Nineties, but treatment research and studies have meant that the present generation of treatments have only surfaced in the past few years.

Several pharmaceutical companies have unveiled early data showing dramatic improvements when IO was being used in combination with other drugs. 79% of melanoma patients were treated with a combination of Yervoy and another immunotherapy drug, and survived for at least another two years. There was also a huge wave of trial results which showed that IO could be used to treat tumours in the bladder, head and neck, which marks a significantly big expansion in the potential for cancer treatments.

Professor Hafler said, “In melanoma at least, there is no question these drugs now provide the hope to patients for disease-free remission.”

Whilst it might seem that the media at the very least gets overly-excited about small developments in cancer treatment, this time round, it seems the cancer care community has a lot to hope for – this breakthrough is likely to change the face of cancer healthcare forever.

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