Immunotherapy is the current rage in conventional medicine, with dozens or, for all I know, hundreds of research labs rushing to create “custom” immune system cells and molecules to attack specific cancer strains. These Big Pharma creations are very expensive if and when they do come to market. Only a few are available at this time.
This approach is the one that reversed former President Jimmy Carter’s cancer, and thereby made a huge splash in the news.
At least the new immunotherapy is an advance over the previous oncology fad — “designer” chemotherapy drugs (i.e. poisons) targeted with particular strains of cancer in mind. Outside of some successes in leukemia treatment, this fad didn’t accomplish much.
But all the recent fuss about “immunotherapy” as a “cutting edge treatment” is misplaced when you consider the core concept is more than a century old. Nearly all alternative cancer therapists focus on various ways to boost the immune system, something that didn’t interest mainstream medicine at all until recently. Now it’s on the cover of Time magazine.
And, using an approach called dendritic cell therapy, a few alternative doctors have modified the patient’s immune system cells so they’re able to identify and kill the patient’s particular type of cancer. Their approach, called dendritic cell therapy, resembles the immunotherapy now being proclaimed as a breakthrough.
But whether you call it old-fashioned or “revolutionary” as some media outlets term it, the bottom line is that immunotherapy does work well at reversing cancer. Best of all, it harnesses the body’s natural healing abilities to do so. Here’s what’s going on. . .
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The immune system 100 years ago
Let’s first take a quick step back into the 19th century, to one Dr. William Coley. It was in the 1890’s that this New York surgeon first focused on the idea of using the body’s natural immune system to fight illness, through an approach he called “Coley’s toxins.”
Dr. Coley’s treatment began by prompting bacterial infection in cancer patients using strep bacteria. His aim was to “jumpstart” their immune systems. Once revved up, he hypothesized the immune system would launch a fever, and that cancer cells could not survive the high temperatures.
Dr. Coley’s approach was celebrated at first because it was better than anything else at the time. But it was still regarded with doubt, largely because nobody understood the immune system. And without that missing piece of the puzzle, there was no explanation as to why the treatment sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Besides that, it was hazardous to infect people with serious diseases.
Over the course of five years, Dr. Coley used this approach on roughly 900 confirmed cases and had a five-year survival rate of 50%. This was impressive for the time, given conventional chemotherapy 120 years ago offered a 2.5% survival rate.
Yet, after Dr. Coley’s death in 1936, his approach fell out of use. In 1963, the FDA stated Coley’s toxins were an ineffective cancer treatment and banned their use altogether. Despite this, a few doctors used it, including the late Dr. Robert Atkins (famous for popularizing the carb-free diet).
The medical files that launched a movement
Dr. Coley’s immune-system treatment idea was revived when his daughter, Helen Coley Nauts, began researching her father’s life as a doctor while prepping to write his biography. She uncovered and analyzed around 1,000 patient files that involved Coley’s toxins.
Helen Coley Nauts went on to start the Cancer Research Institute with the goal of understanding the immune system’s role in cancer. Her work was inspired by her analysis of her father’s files, where she found incredible success rates for healing certain cancerous tumors, but not for others.
Today, thanks to Coley and Nauts, hundreds of researchers have pieced together a dramatic understanding of the immune system. In fact, immune-focused treatments can be found for various cancers, including cancers of the stomach, lung, and kidney, along with leukemia and melanoma.
That’s what’s behind the treatment used on former President Jimmy Carter for advanced melanoma: using the power of your own immune system to wipe out cancer cells.
How immunotherapy made President Carter cancer-free
Melanoma cancer has been described as very sneaky, because it’s able to produce a kind of “shield” that blocks your immune system’s T cells from being able to kill it. But in immunotherapy, “monoclonal antibodies” are created that are able to overcome the melanoma cancer cell’s shield so the T-cell can do its job.
Jimmy Carter was given an immunotherapy drug called Keytruda. This particular drug, manufactured by giant drug company Merck, works to block those shields so his immune system could better recognize and destroy his melanoma cancer cells.
President Carter’s cancer was initially detected when doctors found four small lesions on his brain (thanks to stage four skin cancer that had spread to his liver and brain; this cancer would normally be considered hopeless).
He was soon treated with targeted radiation and the new immunotherapy drug, along with having ten percent of his liver removed. The drug was administered intravenously. Four months later, his lesions had cleared up and doctors pronounced his cancer “undetectable.”
Mr. Carter has continued immunotherapy treatments every three weeks to help ensure the cancer won’t recur and to keep him in long-term remission.
The prognosis for most people who use this therapy in a clinical setting is quite good, especially for early stage cancer. Don’t count on the kind of luck the former President had with late stage metastatic cancer.
The downside is that it’s exorbitantly expensive. Side effects can vary, particularly if a patient is treated with multiple types of immunotherapy drugs. But the side effects aren’t as drastic as those of traditional chemotherapy. A patient doesn’t have to worry about hair loss or similar symptoms.
Immunotherapy also goes by the title “biologics” or biologic therapy. At present, it’s approved for use in cases of advanced stage melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer, and clinical trials are underway for colorectal cancer, multiple myeloma, and 30 other different kinds of cancer.
Is medicine finally coming full circle?
Several doctors predict this is the future of medicine, and I’m glad to see that the future includes working with the body instead of against it. What would be even better is to find an herb or vitamin or supplement that can prompt the same reaction but at a fraction of the cost.
One additional benefit to immunotherapy worth mentioning is that it brings hope to older people suffering from cancer. Jimmy Carter is 91, and in the past someone of his age might not have been offered such treatment because the logic is that the risks outweigh the benefits (the logic is also that if you’re 91 it’s time to go, but doctors probably aren’t going to put it that crudely).
Chemo for late-stage cancer would be expected to extend the patient’s life by only a few months – or even a few weeks. And it’s enormously expensive. The new immunotherapy is also expensive, but it’s less harsh and at least it’s effective. So people of advanced age – or any age – may now find this a viable option.
And to think, every treatment in use today that harnesses the power of the immune system to fight cancer really began with the work of William Coley over 100 years ago.