- Conventional treatments for cancer—surgery, chemotherapy and radiation—have increased survival rates since the 1970s, but many survivors still do not achieve a normal life span.
- Researchers believe the results would be better if they could recruit a new ally against malignancy: the body’s own immune system.
- Over the past decade several attempts to boost the immune response artificially—through vaccination or other drug development—have failed.
- But the tide seems to be changing. A cancer vaccine for treating prostate cancer has been approved, and a new generation of therapeutic cancer vaccines is now being tested.
For decades cancer specialists have offered patients three main therapies: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. (Some cancer survivors pointedly refer to this harsh trinity as “slash, poison and burn.”) Over the years continual refinements in these admittedly blunt instruments have made the more severe side effects increasingly manageable. At the same time, effectiveness has improved markedly. And new, very targeted drugs (Herceptin and Gleevec) have become available for a few specific cancers. All told, the average five-year survival rate for invasive cancers as a group has risen from 50 percent to 66 percent in the past 30-plus years. In spite of these gains, many cancer survivors will not have a normal life span.
Researchers have long suspected that they could add a weapon that would dramatically increase cancer survival rates without producing serious side effects if they could just figure out how to prod the body’s own immune system to do a better job of fighting malignancies. But decades of effort met with one failure after another. In the 1980s, for instance, overheated hopes that an immune system molecule called interferon would rouse the body’s defenses to cure all or most cancers were dashed after a few more years of research. Today interferon has a place but is not the cure-all once envisioned. By the first decade of this century a great number of clinical trials were being conducted using lots of different types of vaccine-related approaches, but nothing seemed to be working. It was starting to look as though the long-hoped-for general weapon against a broad range of tumors would never materialize.
This article was originally published with the title A New Ally against Cancer.