World Cancer Day — Hope with Cancer Immunotherapy
Originally Posted on Medium - February 4th 2020.
Today is World Cancer Day. It’s a moment that each year everyone should unify as a community and take an active role in inspiring action in the fight against cancer. For patients, this is a daily battle for life and hope, while for cancer doctors, it’s a moment of calibrating what we’ve done, where we are, and, most importantly, where we are headed.
Regardless of what your profession is, we need your help. Every year, over 14 million people receive a cancer diagnosis, while 8 million dies of it globally. There’s no time to wait.
We urgently need to elevate awareness of the global burden of this wretched disease and make you aware of the tremendous efforts that are necessary to save more lives.
In 2016, the Obama White House and Vice President Biden kicked off the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative to springboard the fight against cancer. The goals were to accelerate progress in cancer research, encourage greater collaboration, and improve the sharing of data.
Since then, patients, caregivers, doctors, and cancer centers have been working at full-steam to drive cancer breakthroughs via clinical trials and advance Cancer Immunotherapy. This type of treatment involves harnessing the immune system to target and destroy malignant tumor cells. Under the Moonshot, the National Cancer Institute has been funding multiple groups; one of the immunotherapeutic approaches investigates the mechanisms by which tumors interact with the immune system, accelerating the discovery of new immune targets for cancer treatments and the development of new immunotherapies to treat and prevent cancer. Although immunotherapy is now at the forefront of cancer treatment, some challenges remain.
Scientists are researching the tumor microenvironment, the immune cell interactions, and changes that occur within the tumor after the exposure to the immunotherapy treatments. This body of knowledge produced by Immunotherapy Clinical Trials and laboratory research helps us better understand the targets and potential new molecules to improve the efficacy of immunotherapy.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved Cancer Immunotherapy drugs for the treatment of multiple tumor types, and last year, for the first time in its history, the agency approved a cancer treatment based on a biomarker rather than the location of the tumor.
A growing body of cancer researchers and clinical development teams are united in helping to identify and validate predictive biomarkers of immunotherapy responses, accelerating the delivery of novel treatments to patients. As a result, the world stood in awe when a triple-negative breast cancer patient had a complete response after immunotherapy treatment.
Progress in cancer immunotherapy has been nothing short of miraculous, but often it only works in a subset of the population, and unfortunately, the financial toxicity of care often hinders patients access to it. When fighting a disease that spares no one, we have to run against time and to win this fight, and we must work collaboratively and cross-functionally.
Advancing scientific research is a dynamic process, and we know that successes in science rarely come from lone achievements. Instead, they come through collaborative efforts. We, as a community, need to continually challenge ourselves, our peers, our legislative body and push for more inclusive, more diverse, and more accessible access to novel treatments.
Using Artificial Intelligence to speed up that process, for example, is a great way to speed up research, and it’s already happening. A UK startup and a Japanese pharmaceutical company have created the first human trial-ready drug-using AI. It took them under a year to develop a molecule, and because the algorithms are agnostic, it could work in any disease.
For instance, by combining science, technology, and population-scale clinical studies, tests like Grail aim to detect cancer in its early phases, when it is still possible for a patient to be cured.
Using molecular biology and machine learning to detect cancer, scientists can “see” what humans cannot. Additionally, a platform that detects vital biological signals from a routine blood draw, like Freenome, enables the early detection of cancer, instead of relying only on tumor-derived markers.
I hope that Artificial Intelligence sheds light on the clinical implications of many genetic mutations that are not yet fully understood. Combination therapies, epigenetic inhibitors, microbiota enhancers, and a more personalized approach is needed for an improvement in the efficacy of immunotherapy.
The development of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T‐cell therapy for hematological malignancies is one of the most remarkable scientific advances in the history of Medicine. Yet, there remain significant challenges associated with it. Patients still have restricted access to these therapies, not only due to insufficient insurance coverage but also lack access to centers capable of administering cell therapy. Researchers are focused on solving its logistical problems and expanding its use to solid tumors.
We are discovering the fundamentals as to why immunotherapy treatments work so dramatically well in some tumor types while not at all in some patients is key to overcoming these challenges.
Some answers may also come from emerging new targets and modalities an, at the same time, mitigating treatment-related toxicity.
We live in divisive times, but today is a day where we can all unite and shine a spotlight on the global burden of cancer, uniting our worldwide efforts to improve prevention and treatment outcomes.
I envision a future immune to cancer, join our fight, and spread the word.
Dr. Leo Nissola, M.D., Auth.
Medical Doctor, Scientist, Published book author in Immunology.