Cancer Immunotherapy

Today’s Science Times features an interview with Dr. James Allison, the 2014 recipient of the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, which carries Nobel Prize-like prestige. Dr. Allison received this award in honor of his groundbreaking research on utilizing immunotherapy to treat cancer.

What exactly is immunotherapy? Basically, the treatment of a disease by altering the body’s immune system. Immunotherapy as a solution to cancer was first envisioned during the 19th century by William Coley. However, scientists were unable to produce any useful immunotherapy drugs until the publication of Dr. Allison’s work in the 1990’s. His group found that there was a molecule responsible for shutting down the immune system, known as CTLA-4. CTLA-4 does this by binding to a receptor found on “T-cells” (a type of immune cell) and preventing the cells from carrying out any anti-tumor activities.

Knowing that, Dr. Allison proposed an interesting way to block this molecule from binding to, and deactivating T-cells. Specifically, his lab developed a protein that could bind to CTLA-4, and thus obscure its shape so that it doesn’t fit properly into the cellular receptor. This would lead on the development of the drug “Yervoy”, and its FDA approval in 2011 for use against late-stage melanoma (skin cancer).

So how effective is this drug? Claudia Dreifus writes that out of 5,000 patients with advanced-phase melanomas, 22% lived on for 10 years or more. While that seems like a low percentage, it’s actually considerably high compared to other cancer treatments. Not to mention, this drug is being used in people who are being told they only have a year left to live. Most importantly though, scientists now have an idea of how to use immunotherapy as a treatment for cancer. In fact, immunotherapy has quickly become one of the most effective ways to treat cancer to date, with numerous immunotherapy drugs having recently gained FDA-approval.

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