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MGH Cancer Center Investigates the Cancer Immunotherapy Revolution

Photo Credit: Mass General Cancer Center

Boosting the body’s immune response against cancer is the most exciting advance in the treatment of tumors in the past several years. The medical community and main-stream media alike are hot on the trail of touting the virtues of immunotherapy as a compliment to current cancer therapies.  Many are calling it a paradigm-shift in the war on cancer.  There are many questions however, as to who stands to benefit from these therapies and why.

To tackle the challenge, a team of experts from the academic medical community and the pharmaceutical industry joined forces at the Massachusetts General Hospital on March 1 for an annual event that generates ideas and solutions for the most challenging issues in the targeted cancer therapy arena. The Termeer Roundtable, named for the Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies, is an event that brings together the best and brightest to identify new ways of treating cancer.

This year’s roundtable discussion, Inside the Cancer Immunotherapy Revolution:

How Does Immunotherapy Actually Work and Who Benefits From It? was hosted by Keith Flaherty, Director of the Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies and Director of Clinical Research at Massachusetts General Hospital. Nir Hacohen, PhD, director of the Mass General Center for Cancer Immunotherapy was the moderator.

The audience, comprised of physicians, scientists and executives from the Biopharma industry, was eager to deliberate on the latest challenges facing leaders in the field. Unleashing the immune system to control cancer is perhaps the most exciting development in oncology. There are unique challenges despite the indications that some patients have complete and durable responses and others do not. “We need to know what is actually going on inside or patients,” said Elizabeth Jaffee, Professor of Oncology and Deputy Director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns’ Hopkins. “By getting biopsies on each patient and studying their response to therapy, we can modulate our treatment plans accordingly.”

The need for collaboration between the academic medical centers and the pharmaceutical industry was main theme at the Termeer Roundtable. Academia and industry partnerships would help fund clinical research, at a time when the National Cancer Institute is limiting funds. Additionally, the collective effort would speed the collection of real-time data points, and allow for more effective combination treatments for patients.

There are over 100 immunotherapy clinical trials at Mass General. Because of the unique properties and potential of cancer immunotherapies, clinical trials of these treatments may offer promising alternatives to other kinds of therapeutic approaches.

  • Cancer immunotherapy generally risks side effects that are limited to the early treatment period and does not come with the same long-lasting side effects as conventional chemotherapies.
  • Immunotherapy can complement or synergize with other treatments, potentially increasing the chances of success, often with minimal or no additional toxicity.
  • Immunotherapy has already succeeded in making some ‘incurable’ cancers curable, and holds the potential to fundamentally change the way that all cancers are treated.

Clinical trials offer the most promising way of fully understanding how different patients and different cancers respond (or not) to immunotherapy. The concept of an “atlas” for scientists and researchers to share their biological analyses in a public database would bolster the in depth knowledge of immune response and better inform how to treat patients effectively.

In addition to discussing ways to make immunotherapy treatments less toxic and more affordable, the panelists and audience formed a collective enthusiasm for collaborating and working toward sharing knowledge and bioinformatics to help the patients who will ultimately respond well to immunotherapy as an agent to help kill their cancer.