Immunotherapies herald an exciting new new era of cancer treatment

June 4th, 2015

Treatments that boost the body’s natural defences against cancer are offering new hope for patients with a wide variety of common, hard-to-treat cancers.

Experts gathered at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO) Annual Meeting in Chicago this week heard promising results from five clinical trials investigating the safety and effectiveness of immunotherapies for the treatment of lung, bowel, liver, head and skin cancers.

Immunotherapy, also known as biologic therapy, works by enhancing the immune system’s ability to identify and destroy cancer cells. While this class of drug has been used to treat melanoma for over four years, only a small proportion of patients have been shown to benefit.

Recent clinical trials demonstrate that new types of immunotherapy, as well as new combinations of therapies, are having a beneficial effect in over half of all patients, across a variety of tumour types. The new treatment techniques are being heralded as a once-in-a-generation advance, to sit alongside chemotherapy and surgery as a core component in our cancer treatment tool kit.


“The evidence emerging from clinical trials suggests that we are at the beginning of a whole new era for cancer treatments,” said Peter Johnson, the chief clinician at Cancer Research UK. “We are hoping that in many cases these effects will be maintained in the long term, possibly leading to cures for some . . . this looks like the next big step forward for cancer treatment.”

In one trial of 945 patients with advanced melanoma, a combination of two types of immunotherapy drugs was shown to be effective in delaying the progression of cancer for 58% of patients.

Another immunotherapy drug was shown to extend the length and quality of life for patients with non-squamous non-small cell lung cancer, compared with standard chemotherapy.

Experts are encouraged and excited by these results.

“The field of targeted immunotherapy gets more exciting every year,” said ASCO expert Dr Lynn Schuchter. “With these trials, we’re rapidly moving past the era in which immunotherapies are seen as breakthroughs for melanoma alone. Remarkably, these drugs are proving effective in other cancers where practically no other treatments work.”

NBCF is also excited about the potential of immunotherapy in the treatment of breast cancer. Our generous supporters have enabled us to provide funding to six Australian researchers currently investigating the role of the immune system and immunotherapies in the management of aggressive and advanced forms of the disease.

Associate Professor Sherene Loi, from Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, is one such researcher.

Associate Professor Loi and her team have previously discovered that some patients with triple negative breast cancer show features of inflammation in their breast cancer when they are diagnosed. This feature is linked to better survival outcomes.

It is thought that inflammation represents an immune response to the tumor – but researchers do not know why some patients develop a good immune response to their cancer, while others do not. This research project aims to better understand the immune response to triple negative breast cancer and test therapies that can enhance this immunity.

Your generous support can help NBCF-funded researchers, like Associate Professor Loi, continue to investigate the exciting potential of immunotherapies for the management of breast cancer.

Become part of this ‘once-in-a-generation’ advance for cancer treatment by donating to breast cancer research today.