More Molecular Tools for Fighting Cancer

Immunotherapy use expanded

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) A major focus of scientific research in medicine in the past few decades has been working with the immune system to find ways to use antibodies as a smart bomb for therapy, targeting exact molecules only found on cancer cells.

On the flip side of the coin, researchers are looking into boosting the body's own cancer-fighting ability.

There are hundreds of molecules used by the immune system to balance the body's response.  Research into mimicking these immune signals shows that drugs can directly stimulate the body's immune response, in some cases like a vaccine, in other cases more like performance-enhancing drugs familiar to sports fans.

Some research has used antibodies as a way to fed-ex toxic chemicals directly into cancer cells, calling these packages conjugates.

"Ask your oncologist about immunotherapy."

'We are heading into an era where antibodies will not just be components of an effective therapeutic strategy, they will be at the core of an oncologist's treatment plan for patients," says the review's lead author, Louis M. Weiner, M.D.

"Advancement in antibody cancer treatment is not a minor advance or a trivial victory. This is big time stuff," says Dr. Weiner, "This agent turns off the brakes of an immune response against melanoma, liberating the body to set up long term protection against the cancer. About 10 percent of patients with metastatic melanoma who use it go into long-term remission, and may well be cured."

Yervoy (ipilimumab) approved by the FDA in 2011, is an example of what's in the pipeline. The drug works by blocking cancer cells' ability to avoid detection by pretending they are T cells.

Specifically, ipilimumab works by binding to CTLA-4, a molecule that acts as an anti-friendly fire flag in the immune system.

One of the newest class of pharmaceuticals, there are eleven antibodies currently approved by the FDA, with more in development and testing. Herceptin and Rituxan (trastuzumab & rituximab) are the most commonly prescribed for cancer, but Reopro (Abciximab) is used for coronary therapy as well.

Stomach pain, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, are the most common side effects from antibody therapy but fever, breathing or urinating problems have been known to occur as well.

Antibody therapy has come into controversy on occasion for the expensive nature of the drug's development and high average final financial cost to the patient. For example, the standard four doses of Yervoy over three months is quoted at a total of $120,000.

The findings were published in the journal Cell. The full paper, linked at the end of this article, is available to the public.

Researchers stated that their research was funded publicly by direct grants from the National Cancer Institute.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 23, 2012
Last Updated:
March 25, 2012