For the past decade, GHS Cancer Institute doctors and researchers have been working on unraveling the science of immunotherapy for cancer treatment.

Immunotherapy involves stimulating the body’s natural immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells, rather than killing many of the body’s normal cells along with the cancer cells as chemotherapy and radiation normally do.

This research field is the same one that just earned two scientists the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

James P. Allison, who is the chair of the Department of Immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and Tasuku Honjo, a professor in the Department of Immunology and Genomic Medicine at Kyoto University in Japan, independently discovered pieces of cellular machinery that became the foundation for immunotherapy.

When cancer cells invade the body, proteins in the immune system called checkpoints stop the immune system from identifying and attacking the cancer cells. Honjo and Allison each found a way to shut down the checkpoints using drugs called “checkpoint inhibitors.” This allows a patient’s immune system to rediscover and subsequently destroy cancer cells anywhere in the body. It is an entirely new category of treatment for cancer. Before this, if you couldn’t cure cancer with surgery, radiation or chemotherapy, there wasn’t a whole lot else you could do.

We believe that the immunotherapy work being done now—nationwide and here—is a game-changer.

The GHS Cancer Institute’s Rare Tumor Center now has the only trial in the nation that’s using immunotherapy to target all kinds of rare cancers. Through our center, we offer a standardized approach for patients with uncommon tumors for which there is no good conventional therapy.

Another trial underway at the Cancer Institute is investigating an immunotherapy agent that we’re hoping will have lower risk of causing damage to other organs in the body. We also are studying an antibody that we hope will work in conjunction with other immunotherapies to increase an individual’s chance of responding well to the immunotherapy.

There are more than 170 active cancer trials at the GHS Cancer Institute.

We encourage everyone living with cancer—including cancer survivors—to look into whether there might be a clinical trial that fits their situation. In many of these new treatments, the side effects are vastly improved from traditional cancer treatments. There are some very exciting things going on in cancer research that may be just a few years away from official FDA approval. We want to make sure all patients have the opportunity to participate when appropriate. For more information on GHS cancer trials, visit ghs.org/cancertrials.

Dr. Jeff Edenfield is medical director of the GHS Institute for Translational Oncology Research, which works closely with pharmaceutical innovators to develop and test new therapies. GHS’ Cancer Institute has leading-edge treatment centers throughout the Upstate. 

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