Fighting cancer by revving up the immune system

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CHICAGO -- Revving up the body’s immune system to fight cancer. The idea has been studied and tested for years – now a breakthrough for some lung cancer patients.

Alford Thomas: “I do have my days where I have depression.”

Deborah and Alford Thomas have been married forty years. Together they faced Alford’s stroke in 2005. Five years later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Alford Thomas: “It was good for a while …”

But in 2013, the cancer not only returned, it spread to his lymph nodes.

Deborah Thomas, Alford’s wife: “My husband being stage 4 that was a kick in the gut to me when Dr Salgia told me. I’m a very, very positive person, so whatever way life dealt him his cards, I was going to deal with it like that. We’re in this for the long haul … in sickness and in health.”

But surprisingly for the last two years, it’s been in health.

Dr Ravi Salgia, University of Chicago Medicine medical oncologist: “This is two years later now. What we can see is the lymph nodes have completely regressed, and the tumor is virtually all gone.”

Deborah Thomas: “Oh my goodness! Oh happy day! Each time he had his scan it was always a little more shrinkage, so that was good news.”

What started as an enlarged cluster of cancerous lymph nodes in Alford’s lung has shrunk away, not as a result of chemotherapy – Alford tried conventional treatment, but it wasn’t effective. That’s when University of Chicago Medicine’s Dr Ravi Salgia enrolled him in a clinical trial for nivolumab – an experimental drug he hoped would help Alford’s own immune system fight the cancer.

Dr Ravi Salgia: “So if we can trigger the immune cells to say ‘Go find the cancer cells,’ this is how these drugs work.”

But cancer cells are smart – they produce a substance that blocks the body’s immune cells, called t-cells, from killing them off.

Dr Ravi Salgia: “Many trials have gone on, but we hadn’t seen such surprising results like we had with this drug. This is the first time for lung cancer where we have a direct hit in the immune function.”

Results from the clinical trial were so promising the FDA approved the drug last week – months sooner than expected. That means Alford will continue his infusions – he receives the drug every two weeks.

Alford Thomas: “I have a good support system, and my doctors and the nurses they all love me. I can feel the warmth from them, and that has helped me go through what I do.”

But not every patient benefits.

Dr Salgia: “We have seen a number of patients where it’s been very effective, but we have seen other patients where it’s not been very effective. So our big goal is to identify why it’s working in some and not others. I’m cautiously optimistic. I do believe we’re going to make huge breakthroughs and this will come with drugs such as this.”

The drug was approved for patients like Alford with squamous cell carcinoma, a type of non-small cell lung cancer. But Dr Salgia says other trials are underway, and he hopes the treatment will one day be used as a first-line of defense.


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