For years President Nixon’s “War on Cancer” focused on the conventional therapies – chemotherapy, radiation, surgery. While there have been some improvements in the outcomes of these therapies, most notably surgery, overall the conventional therapies have proven to be toxic failures for most patients. For example, despite the fact that many billions of dollars have been spent to improve chemotherapy it is finally becoming apparent to many researchers that chemo has its limitations and that for most solid advanced cancers it is a palliative and not curative therapy.
So where are the improvements in cancer treatment coming from?
It appears that many scientists and drug companies within the cancer industry are finally recognizing what alternative practitioners have been saying for decades – cancer is an immune disease. In other words, the paradigm has shifted to the understanding that the body has within it the ability to identify and eliminate cancer cells. People get the disease “cancer” when something goes wrong with that immune surveillance and the body is unable to detect cancer cells or eliminate them or both.
Why is this important?
Because it gives researchers an approach to aligning their treatments with the body’s own ability to protect against cancer. In fact, researchers are finally taking multiple approaches to harnessing the power of the immune system to fight cancer.
Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors
One approach is to block certain immune checkpoint proteins. These proteins inhibit immune responses and scientists have learned that cancers can control these proteins and use them to suppress immune responses. The drug Keytruda is one just example and is being tested in mesothelioma and other cancers.
Immune Cell Therapy
Another method uses immune cell therapy where tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs), are collected from samples of a patient’s tumor. These TILs can recognize the tumor so they are grown outside the patient and then infused back into the body to mount an attack on the cancer.
Therapeutic antibodies are created by linking antibodies that can zero in on cancer cells to a toxic substance, like a “smart bomb.” The antibody portion binds to the cancer cells and the toxic substance (such as a poison) does its work. The FDA has approved several of these types of drugs already for the treatment of breast cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma.
Cancer Treatment Vaccines
The use of cancer vaccines is another type of immunotherapy. These vaccines are made from the patient’s individual cancer cells. In 2010, the FDA approved the first therapeutic vaccine for cancer – Provenge, for use in some men with metastatic prostate cancer.
Immune Therapies and Alternative Therapies
Now that big Pharma has recognized the immune system as a key player in cancer and the fact that a patented immune therapy could translate into billions of dollars in profits, there is a great deal of interest, research and investment in these therapies. However, patients who are given a prognosis of months do not have time to wait for these therapies to be fully developed. Many cancer patients continue to turn to alternative and holistic therapies. While this is not new what is new is that mainstream medical research and alternative modalities are beginning to merge.
The decades, the world of orthodox cancer therapies (chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery) were light years apart from the world of alternative cancer modalities. The orthodox approaches were based on the paradigm that a cancer is a product of a body that is incapable of fighting on its own and therefore the cancer must be cut out (surgery), burned out (radiation) or poisoned (chemotherapy). On the other hand, alternative practitioners and many patients have been saying the opposite for years. Their paradigm revolved around the belief that the body does have cancer fighting abilities, but in cancer patients something is broken or missing and the body has to be strengthened so that the missing piece can be replaced and the body can do its job in fighting cancer.
Of course, many patients and some doctors have tried to bridge the gap between these two worlds by using complementary or integrative approaches that combine the best therapies from both schools.
One concern is that the immune system is so complex that manipulating it through these newer immune therapies may prove difficult. Perhaps this is where a lesson from alternative therapies can be provided. Alternative therapies are often based on whole plants, roots, leaves, etc. While big Pharma approaches try to identify a single molecule or a patented approach, alternative therapies use many hundreds and thousands of molecules in combination. These organic synergies often make these approaches more potentially efficacious and less toxic. Nevertheless, our current system is based on a drug company doing the research and development to bring a new drug to market and no drug company will make the investment unless they can own, patent, and set the price point for their treatment. Perhaps this is why it is taking so long to cure cancer?