Immunotherapy closing in on a cure for cancer
It's no secret, Kentucky leads the nation in lung cancer deaths as a tobacco-rich state with a high rate of radon and pollution.
In the Bluegrass, more than 4,800 people are diagnosed with lung cancer every year and until recently, more than half would die within a year of being diagnosed with later stages of lung cancer.
Right now, doctors in Louisville say a clinical trial is proof they're closing in on a cure for lung cancer, and even more encouraging, a number of other cancers. The immunotherapy trials are taking place in select cities across the United States, but people who live in Kentuckiana don't have to travel far to get on the list. It's happening right now at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center.
James Long has spent the last year on the trial after he found out he had small cell lung cancer last April. He was discouraged to learn even with chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer would likely come back after two years without further treatment. That led him to his new plan of attack at the Brown Cancer Center. Its new immunotherapy program offers cancer patients new hope.
"Immunotherapy is really a new revolution," Dr. Goetz Kloecker, a University of Louisville physician at the Brown Cancer Center said.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that helps boost your body's immune system to fight cancer, unlike chemotherapy and radiation which try to kill the disease. It's also said to have fewer harsh side effects. (Drugs being tested right now include Keytruda and Opdivo.)
"Cancer cells hide from the immune system and put a cloak over them so the body can't detect them. The new systems take this invisible cloak away so the cells become evident and the immune system now knows how to fight it," Dr. Kloecker said.
In the last few years, Dr. Kloecker says thousands of clinical trials have begun using a combination of immunotherapy, mixed with chemo and radiation and the results are better than anyone expected.
He showed us before and after scans of a lung cancer patient, treated with chemo and radiation at first. The tumor shrank and the airways opened up.
"With this response, we now start immunotherapy so the cancer is less likely to grow back and we can cure these patients," Dr. Kloecker said.
But what if the cancer is late stage, where it's spread to other organs?
"In a case like this, you have to do something that goes everywhere," Dr. Kloecker said.
That's when the immunotherapy alone becomes the first line of defense, targeting the whole body.
Years ago, Dr. Kloeker says a patient with Stage 4 cancer would've had months to live. Today, 18 percent of similar patients involved in the first immunotherapy trials are still living after a year.
Karen Martin's husband, John, is a 16-year-veteran with Louisville Fire and Rescue. He's also receiving immunotherapy at Brown Cancer Center after his cancer spread from his tongue to lung and brain. She says the tumors aren't gone, but they've shrunk over the last year.
"John had such aggressive cancer, as long as he wants to do the treatment, we'll do it until he decides to stop it," Martin said.
She stays hopeful, saying, "it will get better and he will work again someday."
Long spent the last 14 months on the trial. Call it an early Christmas gift. His scans are clear.
"I feel lucky. I feel real lucky," Long said.
This isn't just good news for him, it's great news for millions of cancer patients.
"This drug is going everywhere where cancer is. So every cancer under the sun is being tested," Dr. Kloecker said. "It's a big deal."
Dr. Kloecker says doctors are seeing amazing results with cancers of the colon, kidney, thyroid, and skin. The possibilities are endless.
The clinical trial at Brown Cancer Center is still accepting patients but it's not for everyone. You're checked for certain factors to qualify for it including how much you smoked -- for how long -- and your age.
Dr. Kloecker says there's a lot of paperwork and time involved but it's worth it. You can find more information on clinical trials at Brown Cancer Center here.