The term immunotherapy seems to be everywhere these days. From commercials on television to advertisements in magazines, treatment of disease — especially cancer — with immunotherapy keeps gaining the attention of patients and physicians alike.

Outsmarting cancer

Immunotherapy broadly refers to harnessing the power of the body’s immune system to fight disease. Cancer immunotherapy specifically seeks to use the immune system to eliminate cancer cells. Cancer immunotherapy has some early success that has produced remarkable and long-lasting patient results. This is in stark contrast for most metastatic solid tumors where other treatment options including surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and even targeted therapies are generally not curative.

The far-reaching impact that cancer immunotherapy and radiation treatment combinations may be paradigm shifting.

New data are emerging that show that combination of immunotherapy with other cancer treatments including chemotherapy, radiation, or a second immunotherapy may further improve patient treatment responses and the overall number of patients who respond to treatment. The most notable success with a combination of therapies is seen with the recent treatment of former President Jimmy Carter for metastatic melanoma with the combination of cancer immunotherapy with radiation therapy.

Making impact

The far-reaching impact that cancer immunotherapy and radiation treatment combinations may be paradigm shifting. This is especially true for patients with metastatic cancer in whom radiation treatment is currently given to control and reduce pain. Several ongoing clinical studies are testing how to combine radiation with cancer immunotherapy.

There is still much to learn and address before the promise of cancer immunotherapy can be realized. Some of the major challenges are the relatively small number of patients that respond to treatment with just one cancer immunotherapy, how to combine it with more traditional treatment options, and the lack of reliable ways to predict which patient will respond or not.

The marriage between radiation and cancer immunotherapy agents is still in its infancy but it is an area of great promise and stands to change the longstanding reach of radiation as an exclusively local therapy and extend it to the treatment of metastatic disease. This significant shift will only happen if we can understand how to best combine these treatments.