Promising skin cancer news

One of the oldest treatments for cancer in the modern era is to stimulate the immune system. William Coley was one of the pioneers in this technique, coming up with Coley’s Toxin in the late 19th century. This was a mixture that basically involved infecting patients with the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes. Coley claimed fantastic results, but he kept his records poorly. I don’t know if he ever lied – there is no direct evidence which says he did – but his results were almost always questionable. Besides that, he tended to lose patients to bacterial infections from time to time.

Cancer research lost some of its focus on the immune system in the early part of the 20th century, Coley’s toxin was reclassified into oblivion by the FDA, and governments really didn’t supply the funds for research they should have. Research, however, has long come back around to looking at the immune system and how it can help fight cancerous cells. One of the most recent results has to do with a new drug, Ipilimumab, which is for patients with melanoma

The results, reported Saturday at a cancer conference, left doctors elated.

“We have not had any therapy that has prolonged survival” until now, said Dr. Lynn Schuchter of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a skin cancer specialist with no role in the study or ties to the drug’s maker.

The drug, ipilimumab, (ip-ee-LIM-uh-mab), works by helping the immune system fight tumors. The federal Food and Drug Administration has pledged a quick review, and doctors think the drug could be available by the end of this year.

Ipilimumab is a T-cell potentiator. T-cells basically have antigens which help to regulate immune responses. These antigens inhibit ‘overreactions’ within the immune system. What ipilimumab does is block this inhibition. It says to the immune system, ‘Run wild, you’re free!’

The increased survival rate is great when measured by percentage – 67% – but the practical numbers only mean a few more months of life. That’s how a lot of cancer research goes, unfortunately, and it makes it all so much less of an elation. But this is still hopeful. It’s good progress on the cancer front. (But do keep in mind, this is just one study for one type of cancer, interesting and promising as it may be.)