Waking up the Immune System to Help Fight Cancer

Melissa Kaime, MD, FACP
Melissa Kaime, Medical Oncology / Hematology

The immune system is a wonderfully complex system that protects us in many ways.  We all know it protects us from infection but it also stands guard against the beginnings of cancer that develop in our bodies.  New cancer cells get destroyed by our immune system before we ever know it.  But cancer cells are smart and the really smart ones have ways to avoid recognition and attack from our immune system. 

We've known for years that if we could wake up and harness the power of the immune system, we could make advances in cancer treatment.  That's just what a new class of cancer therapeutic drugs does.  These are the PD-L1 (Programmed Death-Ligand 1) and the CTLA-4 (Cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated protein 4) agents.  These drugs wake up our intrinsic immune system and stimulate it to go after the cancer cells.

We first began using these drugs in metastatic melanoma, but we are finding they are beneficial for many other cancers.  Almost every week there is a new clinical trial completed showing a benefit for one of these agents in another type of cancer.  The most common of these agents are ipilimumab (Yervoy), nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Ketruda) which are used to treat melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, kidney cancer, head and neck cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma.

The physicians at the Gene Upshaw Memorial Tahoe Forest Cancer Center are using each of these drugs in many different cancers.  Although every medicine has some potential side effects, we find that these new agents are very well tolerated.  Clinical trials are ongoing to evaluate their benefit in more cancers.

Melissa Kaime, MD, FACP, comes to the Gene Upshaw Memorial Tahoe Forest Cancer Center from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where she was a staff physician in the Department of Hematology/Oncology.

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