The era of treating breast cancer using chemotherapy may not be required as a major revolution for realizing the permanent cure is on the way. HENRY TYOHEMBA writes.
Chemotherapy for breast cancer uses drugs to target and destroy breast cancer cells. These drugs are usually given directly into a vein through a needle or as a pill.
It is frequently used in addition to other treatments, such as surgery, radiation or hormone therapy. Receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer may increase the chance of a cure, decrease the risk of the cancer returning, alleviate symptoms from the cancer or help people with cancer live longer with a better quality of life.
However, scientists have doubted the impact of chemotherapy as the cancer may recurred or spread. Chemotherapy may control the breast cancer to help you live longer or it can help ease symptoms the cancer is causing but is not a total cure.
Researchers recently identified a woman with an aggressive form of breast cancer, which defied chemotherapy and spread to other organs, was cured with an experimental treatment that triggered her immune system.
According to the study, the woman has been cancer-free for two years, reported the US-based team, presenting their results as “a new immunotherapy approach” for the treatment of patients with a late-stage form of the disease.
Other experts not involved in the work hailed it as “exciting.”
So-called “immunotherapy” has already been shown to work in some people with cancer of the lung, cervix, blood cells (leukaemia), skin (melanoma) and bladder.
But an immune breakthrough for bowel, breast and ovary cancer has remained elusive.
In the latest study, a team extracted immune cells called lymphocytes from the patient, tweaked them in the lab, then re – injected them.
The woman was 49 when she signed up for the clinical trial after several attempts at a cure through conventional treatments had failed, said the study published in the scientific journal Nature Medicine.
The cancer had spread to various parts of her body, including the liver.
A person’s immune system is designed to kill invaders, including rogue, cancerous cells. But it can fail, often because it cannot recognise cancer cells containing the patient’s own DNA.
According to the new study, researchers took lymphocytes from a tumour in the woman’s body and scanned them for specific types which reacted to mutant, cancerous cells.
These were reactivated or “switched on” in the lab and injected back, along with a so-called “immune checkpoint inhibitor” — another type of immunotherapy that has shown success in other types of cancer.
This resulted in a “highly personalised” anti-cancer therapy that yielded “complete tumour regression,” the researchers wrote.
In a comment also published by Nature Medicine, expert Laszlo Radvanyi from Canada’s Ontario Institute for Cancer Research said the woman’s response to the treatment was “unprecedented” for such advanced breast cancer.
This work showed “we are now at the cusp of a major revolution in finally realising the elusive goal of being able to target the plethora of mutations in cancer through immunotherapy,” he wrote.
In a reaction via the Science Media Centre in London, immunotherapy professor Alan Melcher of The Institute of Cancer Research said the trial was “fascinating and exciting”.
The work “provides a major ‘proof-of-principle step forward, in showing how the power of the immune system can be harnessed to attack even the most difficult-to-treat cancers,” he said.
An oncology Prof. Peter Johnson said the study confirmed the immune system can recognise some cancers, and “if this can be stimulated in the right way, even cancers that have spread to different parts of the body may be treatable.”
The technique is “highly specialised and complex”, he cautioned, and may not be suitable for many patients.
With the new discovery, the era of cancer chemotherapy which began in the 1940s with the first use of nitrogen mustards and folic acid antagonist drugs will be a thing of the past.
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