Lung cancer, one of the most common forms of Cancer, affects close to 2 million people every year. In the US alone 220,000 cases were registered this year. The sheer number of lung cancer cases explains, why governments and research organizations around the globe are diligently working for an effective cure for this disease.
Until now, chemotherapy was seen as one of the best treatments to prolong the life of the liver cancer patients. However, recent medical trials conducted at the Davis Comprehensive Cancer Centre, show that immunotherapy drugs extend the survival of the patients by up to twenty months – giving a new ray of hope to lung cancer patients and their families.
How does immunotherapy work?
Immunotherapy works on the basic premise that a person’s immune system, when stimulated can work harder and attack cancer cells. During the course of this therapy, human-made immune system proteins are administered to the patients to boost their ability to fight diseases and specifically cancer cells. Three main types of immunotherapy that are now being used to treat cancer are:
- Monoclonal antibodies
- Cancer vaccines
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors
While monoclonal antibodies are designed to attack a very specific part of a cancer cell, cancer vaccines are injected into the patient’s body to start an immune response against cancerous cells. Similarly, immune checkpoint inhibitors take the ‘brakes’ off the immune system, to recognize and attack cancer cells. In short, immunotherapy trains patient's immune systems to attack tumor cells without killing healthy cells.
The study at Davis Comprehensive Cancer Centre showed that Atezolizumab – an immunotherapy drug - improves the condition of patients with non-small cell lung (NSCL) cancer. Also, the drug has far fewer side-effects when compared to chemotherapy. In fact, scientists throughout across the globe, regard this finding as a breakthrough in lung cancer treatment.
Other new therapies for lung cancer treatment
Apart from immunotherapy, nanomedicine and miRNA therapy have also emerged as effective treatments for lung cancer. Nanomedicine, an emerging multi-disciplinary field, helps in early diagnosis of the disease and targets the cancerous tumors at the nanometer scale. Leveraging this quality of nanomedicine, Malaysian researchers have collaborated with Harvard University to run new clinical trials to understand the applications of nanomedicine.
The miRNA-based approach is used for early diagnosis and understanding about the extent to which cancer in the lungs has developed. Based on the understanding, it becomes easier to administer the most appropriate therapy to the patients and thereby increase their chances of survival.
Is immunotherapy the future of lung cancer treatment?
The recent trials of immunotherapy have surely raised hopes for lung cancer patients. However, like several other therapies for cancer, immunotherapy too has its own set of side effects on patients. To begin with, the therapy has proven to be effective only on those who suffer from NSCL cancer. The effect of immunotherapy on those suffering from small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is yet to be known. Also, oncologists believe that these drugs can complicate the patient’s immune system beyond repair. Therefore, it will be too early to regard immunotherapy as the future of lung cancer treatment; though its role in extending the survival period of the patients cannot be denied.
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