We have seen remarkable progress in the treatment of cancer in just the past year alone. Among the most exciting new approaches to treating cancer are in immunotherapy and targeted therapies.

CLEARING THE SYSTEM: For blood cancers, new treatments are on the horizon. From genetically engineered T-cells to drugs that kick the immune system into gear, curing cancer is moving forward at a promising rate.

Immunotherapy leads to remission

Researchers are discovering multiple ways to harness the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. A treatment called CAR-T therapy has been making headlines. In this therapy, immune T-cells are removed from the patient’s body and genetically engineered to produce a protein on the surface of the T-cells that can bind and recognize the cancer cells. Once the T-cells “home in” on the cancer cells, this triggers the T-cells to multiply and kill the cancer-ridden cells.

There have been dramatic success stories with CAR-T. Patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia or chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), who have failed all other previous therapies, have had dramatic responses. Many of these patients are now in remission — some for many years, suggesting that cures may have occurred; only time will tell. There have also been promising results among people with lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

A new class of drugs

Another promising immunotherapy approach is a new class of drugs called checkpoint inhibitors, which work by removing the brakes that stop the immune system from attacking cancer.

“Many of these patients are now in remission — some for many years, suggesting that cures may have occurred...”

The body’s immune system has T-cells that patrol the body constantly looking for signs of infection. Proteins on cells indicate if it is healthy or cancerous and, if it is cancerous, the T-cell will attack it. Sometimes the T-cells are unable to recognize the cancer cells because they carry “checkpoint” proteins that act like masks, helping the cancer cells blend in with normal cells.

Researchers discovered that they can block these proteins with natural human antibodies. The immune system can then be unleashed and trained to attack the cancer cells. A few of these antibodies have been approved to treat patients with melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer, and one was recently approved to treat patients with relapsed Hodgkin lymphoma where robust responses occur frequently.

Improvements in targeted therapy

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two promising oral therapies for people with CLL. And the dizzying array of new drugs approved to treat multiple myeloma patients in the last year — four new drugs in one year — is raising hopes for more durable remissions for this still incurable cancer of the bone marrow.

With all of these new options in the arsenal, researchers are now turning their attention to how to make all these therapies even more effective. What are the optimal combinations and dosages of both the new and the old? We hope to see sooner than later.