How Can We Unleash the Immune System?

Denise Grady in The New York Times:

Cancer has an insidious talent for evading the natural defenses that should destroy it. What if we could find ways to help the immune system fight back? It has begun to happen. The growing field of immunotherapy is profoundly changing cancer treatment and has rescued many people with advanced malignancies that not long ago would have been a death sentence. “Patients with advanced cancer are increasingly living for years not months,” a recent editorial in the journal JAMA said. It added that longer survival means that health workers in just about every specialty — not just oncologists — will be taking care of people who are living with cancer or recovered from it. Immunotherapy accounts for much of the progress. Still, it does not help everyone, side effects can be ferocious, and so can the expense. Overall, immunotherapy works in fewer than half of patients — but it can bring remissions that last years. Is this as good as it gets? Probably not. The field is still young, hundreds of clinical trials are underway and basic researchers are trying to find ways to fine-tune the treatments they have already developed, as well as find new ones.

So far, the two main forms of immunotherapy approved by the Food and Drug Administration for cancer are drugs called checkpoint inhibitors and CAR-T cells. Both involve a workhorse of the immune system — T-cells, a type of white blood cell whose job is to kill cells that have turned malignant or become infected with viruses.

More here.