Immunotherapy offers hope for once nearly-untreatable cancers

Though scientists have explored immunotherapy for more than 100 years, only recently has it been taken seriously, said James Allison, chair of the department of immunology, co-director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Allison, who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, has conducted pioneering research into T cells, the foot soldiers of the body’s immune response to foreign invaders.

Allison studied a certain protein that acts as a brake on T cells and prevents them from responding uncontrollably. But this brake can also undermine the body’s response to cancer. For various reasons, T cells were being shut down before they could kill tumors. Allison was able to create a breakthrough “checkpoint inhibitor” therapy to remove this brake, freeing the T cells to continue the battle as long as needed.

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This pioneering approach has led to promising new treatments for numerous cancers, like advanced melanoma. Survival rates have been boosted from about seven months, on average, to at least five years for more than half of advanced melanoma patients… While immunotherapy will not fully replace other therapies, like chemotherapy and surgery, he predicted, it will complement them.

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