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Is Immunotherapy a Panacea?

A Blog Post by Chuck Maniscalco | June 22, 2017

Eight years ago, when my mother got cancer, she had few treatment options: just chemotherapy and radiation.  When my sister was diagnosed, there was a new treatment approach called targeted therapy, where the treatment targets specific gene mutations that are associated with the disease. 

At that time, targeted therapy was being heralded as the next new thing in treatment, overcoming the big downside of chemo — namely that chemo targets all fast-growing cells, not just cancer cells (hence the hair loss).  Targeted therapy is... well, targeted, which means more effectiveness with fewer side effects.

By the time I was diagnosed last fall, there was a new option on the table: immunotherapy.  Today in the popular press, immunotherapy is touted as the next big thing in cancer treatment.  So, I asked myself, is it really? 

A couple days ago, I spent time with Dr. Jeff Sosman, a Lurie Cancer Center researcher whose specialty is immunotherapy.  We had a spirited discussion of immunotherapy, targeted therapy and the good, bad and ugly of all of it.  Despite his excitement for and deep commitment to immunotherapy, he’ll be the first to say that, no, it is not a panacea. 

To oversimplify, there are two questions you should ask about any cancer treatment:

  1. What is the proportion of people who respond to the treatment?
  2. What is the duration of the response?

Coming back to targeted therapy, I take Tarceva.  More than 75% of the people who take this medication respond positively, which is a great response rate.  But the average time people are able to stay on the medication is about one year.  That’s the downside.  Cancer is constantly mutating; and eventually, your targeted therapy will stop working as new, resistant mutations appear on the scene.

As for immunotherapy, the excitement about it is the promise of sustained survivability.  Data is still coming in — but for many immunotherapy approaches, half or more of the people are alive five years out. This well outpaces any other therapeutic approach that currently exists. 

The problem with immunotherapy is that, today, only about 25% of the patients who are using this approach respond.  So, immunotherapy positively rocks on the second question, but not on the first. 

The challenge, which can only be met by a continued investment in research, is to better understand why most people don’t respond to immunotherapy. That way, we can reach a point where it is, indeed, a panacea — or at least provides the promise of a much longer life.

The Lurie Cancer Center is at the center of doing exactly this, and I urge you to support them (and me!) with your contributions. Longer and healthier lives through immunotherapy may be just around the corner.

About Chuck Maniscalco

Chuck Maniscalco

Diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in October 2016, Chuck benefitted from the advanced, individualized and research-based treatment options offered at the Lung OncoSET, part of the Lurie Cancer Center.

Chuck retired after a long and accomplished career in business, including roles as President of Gatorade, CEO of Quaker, Tropicana and Gatorade, and CEO of Seventh Generation. A man of many passions, he was an avid runner and guitar player, and took daily joy in completing the New York Times crossword puzzle. Chuck passed away March 19, 2019 at his home in Winnetka.

About Lung OncoSET

The Lung OncoSET is an extension of the Lurie Cancer Center's breakthrough OncoSET Program. OncoSET (Sequence, Evaluate, Treat) is based on the premise that each individual and every person's cancer is unique. It harnesses the power of precision medicine to identify tailored therapies for patients based on the abnormal genes specific to their tumor.

In 2014, the Lurie Cancer Center became the first academic cancer center in Chicago and one of only a handful in the nation to provide this kind of personalized medicine to patients with tumors — especially those tumors that are resistant to traditional cancer therapies. Learn more about Lung OncoSET and support more effective treatments for patients with lung cancer.

Support Lung OncoSET

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