Bright Hope on the Horizon – Part Three

See the beginning of Sajjad’s story in Part One and Part Two


Swimming Upstream: My Struggle and Triumph Over Cancer and the Medical Establishment: New Hope in Cancer Treatment

(Jan 2020)

We all are familiar with the miracle of modern antibiotics. Most infections, even the serious and life-threatening kind, can usually be cured by the proper use of antibiotics. But antibiotics cannot work without help from the patient’s immune system. 

Every day, literally hundreds of times a day, various bacteria and viruses invade our bodies. Yet, we are not constantly sick. Why? Because our immune system is always on guard, ready to fight and destroy every potential enemy. The invaders are promptly killed and the threat is eliminated without us ever becoming aware of it. 

It is only when the bacteria manage to establish a beachhead that we show signs of illness. Even then, the immune system plays a critical role in helping the antibiotics conquer the infection. Antibiotics simply cannot work if the immune system is diseased and unable to help, as in HIV. That is precisely why in HIV even a minor infection can threaten the patient’s life despite the use of antibiotics. Our immune system is the most powerful, sophisticated, efficient, and elite fighting army one can imagine.

So, why does it not fight the cancer and kill it off? For decades, medical scientists have struggled with precisely this question. Why was the immune system actually ignoring the horrid invasion? Why was it sitting quietly by while the cancer invaded and destroyed one vital organ after another until it killed the patient?

It has been only in the last few years that we have realized what was happening.

Cancer is wily and cunning. That, of course, is not a surprise. But researchers have begun to understand that cancer cells actually make themselves invisible to the immune system. We still do not have a complete understanding as to how, but we have learned a few things. 

This we do know: The immune system fights off various invasions through a system of checkpoints. Say, for example, you have strep throat. When the germs first invade, an alarm is triggered which serves to mobilize the body’s immune forces. They attack the strep germs and kill them off. Soon, the immune forces reach a checkpoint where they must stop to receive fresh orders. If the threat persists, the order will be to continue the attack. On the other hand, if the threat has been eliminated, that information will be conveyed to the immune forces, thereby shutting them down. Obviously, we do not want our army to keep firing after the enemy is dead. It will only cause harm to the civilians. Similarly, our immune system must not go on unchecked in order to prevent damage to the normal and healthy tissues. 

So, our immune response is a pattern of repeated starts and stops regulated by a series of checkpoints. 

Scientists have learned that cancer has the ability to trigger checkpoints or manipulate the checkpoint signals. As soon as the immune forces attack the cancer, it initiates a checkpoint signal to terminate that immune response. Cancer has a way of making the checkpoint say—to continue the analogy—”No problems here. The threat is gone. All clear now.” 

So far, we only know about a couple of different ways this is accomplished. But it is very likely that the wily cancer has many other ways to fool the immune system. Our knowledge is still growing by the day.

Once scientists understood that mechanism, they began to develop medicines that neutralized the false checkpoint signals created by the cancer, thus allowing the immune system to continue to attack and kill the cancer cells. These drugs are called checkpoint blockade therapies.

In clinical trials, these medicines have produced a 66 percent success rate against an extremely deadly cancer, malignant melanoma. This is an astonishing success, and we may even improve upon that success as we learn to use different drug combinations and newer and better drugs are developed. Each day brings the dawn of a new hope.  One of the newer checkpoint blockade drugs, Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) has consistently shown encouraging results in a variety of, hitherto untreatable, cancers. 

Another prong in the battle that has brought jaw-dropping positive results is something called adoptive T-cell transfer. This is the stuff of science fiction. And the exciting results it is producing have turned cancer research on its ears.

Using T-cells to kill cancer will put medicine on the cusp of being able to say we have found a cure for cancer. Adoptive T-cell transfer therapy is the most promising technique we have to finally attain the Holy Grail of cancer medicine—to be able to utter those three magical words to the patient: “You are cured!” 

T-cells are our immune system’s killer cells. Think of them in a way as an elite commando force that can seek out and destroy the enemy. The challenge is this: because of mechanisms we are still trying to fully understand, cancer cells camouflage themselves from T-cells. So, how do you make the T-cells “see” this enemy called cancer? If they can see it, they will attack it and destroy it.