Even today, the workings of living bodies are still largely a mystery to us. The stubbornness of cancer proves it.
While chemotherapy can help cancer patients regain their life, it doesn’t guarantee the recipient will remain cancer-free. Intravenous delivery can make the treatment uncomfortable and intimidating. It’s stressful for the patient and hard on the body’s other healthy, functional systems.
Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that targets cancerous cells directly, as chemotherapy is commonly administered intravenously the entire body is exposed to the treatment, meaning it can damage healthy cells in the body as well as the cancerous ones.
In contrast, immunotherapy functions by compelling the body’s own immune system to attack cancerous cells and can even be used to prevent the development of cancer. Immunotherapy treatments administered by pill could replace injection and IV-based treatments and consequently cut down the amount of time patients spend in hospitals considerably – as they would be able to self-administer the treatment at home.
Recent efforts directed towards the development of a pill-based administration approach will greatly improve drug discovery in this branch of medicine and have significant ramifications for patient experiences and outcomes after a cancer diagnosis. A new technique called “protein painting” improves on existing drug discovery techniques and takes the medical community closer to potentially phasing out drug- and radiation-based cancer treatments in favor of immune-based orally delivered anticancer medications.
What is immunotherapy and how does it improve on chemotherapy?
Members of the medical community increasingly see immunotherapy as the future of cancer treatment. For instance, one such proponent of immunotherapy is Dr. Leena Gandhi, the director of the Thoracic Medical Oncology Program at the Perlmutter Cancer Center at New York University Langone Health.
As one of the leaders of an immunotherapy study, Dr. Gandhi believes that: “chemotherapy alone is no longer an acceptable patient care standard” and that a combinatory treatment approach is favorable. Indeed, according to studies on the effectiveness of dual treatment paradigms in cancer patients, combining chemotherapy with immunotherapy helps patients live longer and fuller lives than they would with chemotherapy alone.
Work continues on making immunotherapies even more effective and accessible. Compared with chemotherapy, it is less harsh on human physiology because it bolsters the body’s existing cells to fight cancer instead of using cytotoxic drugs. Chemotherapy targets existing cancer cells, while immunotherapy basically trains the body to recognize cancer cells, “remember them”, and fight them again in the future.
Immunotherapy is on its way to becoming the new normal in cancer treatment, but one of the most common methods for administering it is through IV. This relatively invasive procedure requires patients to travel to and from physicians’ office for regular treatment. The reason why pill-based cancer treatments aren’t more common for more types of cancer yet is deceptively simple — researchers don’t fully understand the protein “targets” responsible for hiding cancer cells from the human immune system.
We are seeing exciting progress on this front. Researchers from George Mason University have now used a technology called protein painting to identify where and how certain proteins interact with cancerous cells. They see protein painting as a positive step forward in developing drugs that can be effectively delivered via pills — instead of being effective only when administered intravenously.
Understanding the types of immunotherapy
Learning the mechanisms behind immunotherapy is essential for understanding pill-based cancer treatments. Some immunotherapy treatments available to cancer patients today include:
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors: This immunotherapy treatment works by blocking checkpoint proteins from binding with their “partners”. This prevents an “off” signal from being sent to the immune system, allowing the T cells to remain activated and kill cancer cells.
- Monoclonal antibodies: This treatment involves the synthesis of proteins that are tailored to either directly attack specific protein targets on cancer cells or target proteins on immune cells stimulating the immune system to attack the cancer cells indirectly.
- T-cell transfer therapy: T-cell transfer therapy: This type of treatment directs the immune system's T cells to develop antigen receptors that can recognize tumor cells. It involves removing T cells from the body, re-engineering them and then putting the new cells back into the patient. Examples include; CAR T cell therapy and TIL therapy.
Immunotherapies shows promise in patients with a variety of cancer types — including lung, bladder, kidney, liver, ovarian, and prostate cancers, as well as melanomas, lymphoma, sarcoma and others.
Immunotherapies delivered in pill form aren’t yet the default cancer treatment. Techniques like protein painting bring that day closer, however. As this type of cancer treatment matures, the medical community will see several favorable implications for cancer patients. These include:
- More comfortable treatment
- Potentially lower costs because of easier and more cost-effective drug delivery
- Easier to self-administer treatment at home
Immunotherapy appears to provide the path of least resistance when treating a patient for some types of cancer. The medical community is actively pursuing further developments on the delivery mechanisms used to treat patients with immunotherapy, as well as enhancing the technique’s effectiveness against additional forms and severities of cancer.
The future of cancer treatment
Immunotherapy is an important part of the future of cancer treatment. Even now, scientists are hard at work using new techniques to find more convenient delivery methods for a wider variety of immunotherapy cancer treatments.
Protein painting technology is more cost-effective and less time-consuming than previous drug discovery methods, and it may help to dramatically cut down on the time-to-market for pill-based and other types of cancer therapeutics.