Immunotherapy is the leading edge of a revolution in cancer treatment. These drugs give new hope to Stage IV cancer patients who were out of treatment options. Some patients with forms of cancer that are particularly hard to treat, such as pancreatic cancer and even mesothelioma, have benefited from immunotherapy treatments.
Still, immunotherapy is not a magic bullet. While these cutting-edge treatments have produced some astounding results, researchers haven’t been able to repeat these successes with large groups of cancer patients. Immunotherapy may be the key, but scientists still haven’t figured out how to unlock the door.
Immunotherapy is now an accepted treatment for many forms of cancer, including mesothelioma. Your doctor may offer you the option of trying immunotherapy drugs such as Keytruda or Opdivo. Understanding mesothelioma immunotherapy can help you decide whether this treatment is right for you.
What is Immunotherapy?
Standard of care mesothelioma treatments include surgery to remove the cancerous tumor, chemotherapy to kill cancer cells, and radiation to shrink the tumor. Immunotherapy is a type of chemotherapy, but it works differently from traditional chemotherapy drugs.
Cancer cells tend to grow faster than healthy, normal cells in your body. Chemotherapy drugs seek out fast-growing cells and kill them. Chemotherapy treatment is a systemic cancer treatment. It attacks cancer cells anywhere in your body, including cells that have metastasized or travelled away from your original tumor.
Immunotherapy drugs operate on a different principle. Rather than trying to directly kill cancer cells, these drugs target your immune system. This type of cancer treatment aims to strengthen your immune response to fight back against your mesothelioma cancer.
How Does Mesothelioma Immunotherapy Work?
Immunotherapy treatments are possible because scientists have learned more about how cancer cells grow. Your immune system is designed to detect and kill abnormal or damaged cells quickly. It has robust mechanisms to keep your body free from intruders and harmful mutations.
These mechanisms are triggered by an intricate system of proteins that act as checkpoints for your immune system. The checkpoints regulate your immune system to protect you from overactive immune responses. One example is a mechanism that turns on when a woman is pregnant. The immune regulation prevents her body from sensing the fetus as a foreign body and attacking it. Cancer cells hijack these natural mechanisms to grow unchecked.
The hallmark of cancer is cells that grow unchecked and invade surrounding tissues. To do this, cancer cells have to ignore signals from the body that would tell them to shut down and die off. They have to find ways to evade your immune system’s T cells that would otherwise kill them off before they could reproduce. Some cancer cells have evolved ways to use immune system checkpoints to hide from T cells or avoid programmed cell death. Immunotherapy treatments turn these checkpoints back on. This allows your immune system to attack these mutant cells and kill them.
Scientists are also working to develop personalized cancer treatments that work with your immune system. One type of personalized cancer treatment involves removing some of your T cells and altering them to specifically target your cancer cells. Scientists then grow these edited immune cells in the lab. They inject this immune cell army back into your body, where they hope it will attack your cancer cells. This approach is time-consuming and it’s still in the experimental stage. It has only been tried on a small number of patients, but the early results show promise.
Your immune system is more powerful than the most powerful chemotherapy drug. Every day, your body kills off problem cells and ejects invaders. If researchers can figure out how to harness this power, it will be a powerful tool in the fight against mesothelioma and other deadly cancers.
Side Effects of Treatment
Chemotherapy often has distressing side effects. Because the drugs also kill fast-growing cells that aren’t cancerous, many patients lose their hair. Our stomachs are lined with fast-growing cells, so digestion is often disrupted. Your sense of taste can also be affected and you may have a hard time eating spicy foods during chemo treatment.
Not everyone has severe side effects from chemotherapy. Your doctor may prescribe other medications to manage your chemotherapy side effects.
One of the promises of immunotherapy is that it may have fewer side effects than chemo because it is more targeted. This isn’t always the case, however.
These treatments can send your immune system into overdrive. In some cases, this may cause your immune system to attack healthy cells in your body. This can make you feel sick.
Common side effects include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Stuffy sinuses
- Achy muscles
- Swollen legs
- Hormonal changes
If you experience side effects during a course of mesothelioma immunotherapy, let your doctor know right away. If the side effects are severe or life-threatening, you may need to stop the medication.
Can Immunotherapy Cure Mesothelioma?
At the moment, there is no cure for mesothelioma. Treatment options are increasing as research continues. A small number of patients have had remarkable results through clinical trials of drugs such as Keytruda. At least one mesothelioma patient has been declared in remission after immunotherapy treatment. It is too soon to determine if she is cured or whether her mesothelioma cancer will return.
For every patient with advanced cancer who achieves a miracle cure, there are currently many more for whom immunotherapy does little or nothing. Researchers don’t know why these treatments help one patient and not another. The answer to that question could be the key to developing more effective treatments.
For now, immunotherapy is a beacon of hope for mesothelioma patients. If your doctor feels that this kind of mesothelioma therapy is appropriate for you, there’s no reason not to try it. You might be one of the ones who responds well to this type of treatment.
As the field matures, researchers are coming up with new and more effective treatments, even though they haven’t found a mesothelioma cure. Cocktails with two or more immunotherapy drugs or combinations with traditional chemotherapy drugs may be more effective than single-drug immunotherapy treatment.
Researchers continue to search for more answers to unlock the mysteries of cancer cell development and immune response. There are numerous studies underway that seek to find the key to more effective immunotherapy. Ask your doctor if you might qualify for a clinical trial. If you have the opportunity to join a study, you could be at the forefront of a revolution in cancer treatment.
Mesothelioma immunotherapy offers the promise of hope for mesothelioma patients and their families. Hope is precious when you are diagnosed with a disease that has no cure. Scientific breakthroughs about the mechanisms that drive tumors to form may be the first steps towards cancer treatments that help patients with more advanced cancer.