New developments in immunotherapy drugs continue to create buzz in the cancer community and beyond. The newer immunotherapy drugs—immune checkpoint inhibitors and the most recently introduced CAR T-cell therapies—are leading the progress seen in the treatment of patients with cancer, charting new directions and spreading renewed hope for patients with blood cancers or solid tumors.
This special issue discusses some key developments in immunotherapy, highlighting key advances and providing resources for patients, their family members, and their oncology navigators. Indeed, researchers hope that harnessing the body’s healthy immune system to fight cancer may hold the key to curing cancer, potentially in the not-too-distant future.
The FDA approval in 2010 of the first checkpoint inhibitor (a CTLA-4 drug for advanced melanoma) has helped to launch a new era in cancer therapy, unleashing the power of our healthy immune cells to fight and stop the development and growth of cancer cells, thereby improving quality of life and extending the lives of some patients with cancer, and infusing new hope for patients and their families.
Since then, several new checkpoint inhibitors have been approved for different types of cancer, such as bladder or lung cancer, lymphoma, and others. Read the article in this issue on checkpoint inhibitors available for patients with several subtypes of lung cancer, including those with somatic mutations, which often require a drug specific to that feature.
Last year witnessed the FDA approvals of the first-ever 2 CAR T-cell therapies, or gene therapies, ushering in a new direction in immunotherapy. These gene therapies were approved for 2 types of blood cancer, and new CAR T-cell therapies are now in clinical trials for multiple myeloma and other types of cancer.
The availability of immunotherapy drugs means long periods without signs of cancer for some patients, doubling or tripling the length of survival in many cases, or potentially a cure for others. Nevertheless, not all patients benefit from these life-enhancing therapies; identifying which patients will benefit from what type of immunotherapy, and why, remains a challenge. Indeed, because not all patients respond to immunotherapy, researchers are trying to figure out how to overcome the resistance to immunotherapy to provide the benefits of those powerful new treatments to all patients with cancer.
The FDA continues to approve novel immunotherapies for new types of cancer, and many of the drugs that were initially approved for one type of cancer can now be used by patients with different types of cancer or in combinations.
With the growing use of immune checkpoint inhibitors, in early 2018 two major national organizations issued the first guidelines for cancer providers on how to recognize and manage such side effects. Although those drugs overall have fewer side effects than chemotherapies, side effects do occur, and in some cases can be fatal. Therefore, knowing what to look for and when to ask for help is crucial. “We need to tell our patients to have a high level of suspicion that anything they encounter is related to the treatment,” says Dr. Thompson in his discussion of the new guidelines.
Finally, one article in this issue explains why participating in a clinical trial with immunotherapies may be a good option for you, including what to discuss with your care team, and what are the potential benefits. Because hundreds of studies are currently available, the article lists only some examples of immunotherapy clinical trials, providing information on how to find more clinical trials, by cancer type.
We hope this educational information prompts discussions with your providers, including your oncologist and navigator, to see if you may be able to benefit from one of the immunotherapies.