An Innovative, Non-Invasive Treatment
Immunotherapy treatment was first introduced as a clinical trial, an experimental treatment. Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer, that is virtually resistant to traditional therapies. The most common type of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers that root themselves into the lungs. Other treatments for mesothelioma have not been successful.
It has only been over the last decade when immunotherapy treatments have been considered for mesothelioma. Several clinical trials and studies have been performed to measure the therapy’s success rate. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to approve immunotherapy drugs to treat malignant mesothelioma. There has been a booming success and overall improvement in a patient’s quality of life while treating with immunotherapy.
What is Immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy is a mode of treatment that uses a person’s own immune system to fight cancer and other diseases. The American Cancer Society explains how immunotherapy can attack cancer by “[s]timulating your own immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells” and, “giving you immune system components, such as man-made immune system proteins.” Some types of immunotherapy are referred to as biotherapy or biologic therapy. The purpose of the body’s immune system is to protect your body from dangerous foreign pathogens while also removing dead and damaged cells. It is also capable of recognizing cancer cells.
What is the key difference between Immunotherapy and Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy, or “chemo,” acts as a direct attack on cancer. It hits both healthy and cancerous dividing cells. Chemo can be used in conjunction with immunotherapy, surgery, and radiation. Chemo can produce harsh side effects. Since the chemo is aggressively destroying dividing cells, it can cause side effects like hair loss and nausea.
According to the Cancer Research Institute, “[i]mmunotherapy treats the patient’s immune system, activating a stronger immune response or teaching the immune system how to recognize and destroy cancer cells. Immunotherapy often takes more time to have an effect, but those effects can persist long after treatment ceases.” Immunotherapy can produce side effects as a result of an overactive immune system. The side effects can include inflammation, similar to autoimmune disorders. Treatment plans vary among a patient and their tolerance levels.
Immunotherapy for Mesothelioma is a Game Changer
Immunotherapy has provided hundreds of malignant mesothelioma patients relief and a better quality of life. Samir Tanios, a patient at Baylor’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center, was first diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma about a year ago. Baylor reports that Mr. Tanios initially presented with extreme weakness and was unable to climb stairs. His initial prognosis was less than a year.
Baylor started Mr. Tanios on a “checkpoint inhibitor” called nivolumab. The inhibitor works to boost the immune system to fight cancer cells. His doctor explained that Mr. Tanios was diagnosed with biphasic mesothelioma (mixed-cell type) with the predominant cell type being sarcomatoid. It is such an aggressive form of malignant mesothelioma that it does not usually respond to chemotherapy. Dr. Wang further explained, “we didn’t feel he could tolerate chemotherapy in his condition. Therefore, given the favorable safety profile and activity seen in recent clinical trials with immune checkpoint inhibitors, we decided on treatment with nivolumab.”
Within a few short months, Mr. Tanios’ tumors began to shrink and be started to feel better. To date, Mr. Tanios has been receiving immunotherapy, and his condition has significantly improved. Dr. Wang reported that his last scan showed no new tumor activity. Further, Mr. Tanios is not in pain and is even able to exercise. After a life-changing year, Mr. Tanios stated, “I would hope for anybody who has cancer to have the same results,” Samir said. “No matter how many months or years you live, you have a better quality of life. I take it day by day. I live my life, and I enjoy my family and my friends. I am happy where I am.”
Another remarkable case is that of Mr. Wally Rogers. He is now a four-year mesothelioma survivor. After chemotherapy had not helped Mr. Rogers, his wife began searching for other forms of relief for her husband. A doctor suggested that Mr. Rogers try Keytruda, an immunotherapy drug that has received mixed reviews from a variety of healthcare specialists.
Mr. Rogers started his immunotherapy treatment in March of 2018. The initially lab tests showed an instant effect on his cancer. However, by October of 2018, he discontinued the use of Keytruda. He reported that he believed it was causing a hemorrhage in the retina of his left eye, which he thought was a side effect of the drug. However, even after he stopped treatment, his CT scans showed no remaining signs of the tumor, they were completely gone.
Mr. Rogers stated in a recent article, “[a]t this point, I don’t want to use the word ‘cured,’ because they need five years to say that, but every time our oncologist here sees an X-ray or CT scan, he’s amazed. Nothing has come back. One of the health care workers here calls me his ‘miracle boy.’” Interestingly enough, Mr. Rogers had a similar aggressive form of mesothelioma, as did Mr. Tanios. His doctors boast that he has beaten the odds.
Immunotherapy and Improved Quality of Life
There are now several immunotherapy drugs currently available (Keytruda, Opdivo, and Yervoy) that have yielded promising results. Some drugs are still in clinical trials. Many claim that immunotherapy helps them live longer. Immunotherapy has the potential to halt the growth of cancer. It follows your body’s natural immune system processes to systematically fight cancer. Unlike chemotherapy, immunotherapy only targets cancer cells. Chemotherapy attacks all cells. While there are some side effects that come with immunotherapy, they are said to be more manageable than other treatments available.
A recent study of a 66-year-old male who, according to the case report, “experienced rapid disease progression after standard chemotherapy but had an exceptional and sustained response to immune checkpoint inhibition with single-agent nivolumab. Based on the response achieved in our patient and the growing body of pre-clinical in vitro studies, nivolumab may have promise as a future therapy in MPM, although a further study in this regard is needed.”
The emergence of immunotherapy has renewed optimism where cures have remained elusive. It has improved one’s quality of life and has provided more time with their loved ones. Immunotherapy is a revolutionary treatment. It continues to offer more hope to those diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma.