Dr. Walter Urba, Director of Cancer Research at the Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center is one of the many oncologists who treat cancer patients with therapy that targets the immune system. While patients can opt for chemotherapy or targeted therapy, Dr. Urba recognizes immunotherapy as a more comprehensive treatment for its ability to stimulate the immune system as a way for the patient’s body to seek out and destroy cancer cells on its own.
According to Urba, “Immunotherapy is the science of stimulating a patient’s immune system to recognize the differences that occur when a cell goes from being benign to malignant. Any cell that’s producing proteins at higher levels or that are altered in a way that looks foreign to a patient’s immune system can be recognized and destroyed if the immune system is properly stimulated.”
He continues, “Immunotherapy teaches the body to recognize malignant cells and look for foreign invaders. It promotes cellular immunity wherein a variety of cells wander the body by flowing through the blood system and the organs to seek out, identify and destroy abnormal cells.”
You hear about patients going through chemotherapy often. However, there is a major difference in how the body reacts to chemotherapy versus immunotherapy. Urba explains, “The major difference between chemotherapy and immunotherapy is that chemotherapy is toxic and designed to poison the tumor cell without distinguishing between normal cells and cancer cells. This results in collateral damage like hair loss, nausea and vomiting. Targeting the immune system works indirectly, whether through antibodies or vaccines. These methods don’t have a direct effect on the tumor cells, rather, they stimulate antibodies or cells of the immune system that recognize the tumor and get rid of it, limiting the damage to nearby normal cells.”
Immunotherapy is an option for many cancer patients, although Providence is still researching the attributes of the ideal patient. “Generally the smaller the tumor burden or the earlier the stage of disease, the better the results of treatment. So far, the field of immunotherapy is still young, but we have had many positive clinical trials and treatments available for patients who have not had any benefit from chemotherapy that we are hopeful,” says Urba.
“When patients have advanced stages of certain types of cancer, we use immunotherapy as their first line of defense, while in other cancers it may be as a second or third line therapy when other drugs fail. We treat many patients with immunotherapy in our oncolocy clinics every day, some in a non-experimental setting while others receive immunotherapy through clinical trials or experimental methods when standard therapy doesn’t work. We want everyone to have access to this therapy, so we try not exclude anyone seeking this type of treatment,” he continues.
For patients with cancer, hope is often what they cling to during treatment. Urba says, “At Providence, hope works through a different mechanism. We deliver it through our standard of care and by offering patients the opportunity to fight their cancer through experimental therapies that other centers may not have.”