Will immunotherapy become the 4th pillar of cancer care?

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are bringing new treatment options to patients

Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy have long been considered the three pillars of cancer care, but if researchers are right, a fourth pillar could soon expand this foundation and provide an exciting new treatment option for some patients. This potential new pillar, called immunotherapy, uses drugs, cells or even viruses to stimulate the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.

“Our immune system contains an army of cells which are our body’s natural defenses,” explains Dr. Xinni Song, an oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. “These cells are constantly on the lookout for cancer cells, but some cancers develop strategies to put the immune cells to sleep. The goal of immunotherapy is to enhance the body’s immune reaction, or basically wake up the immune cells so they can recognize and eliminate cancer cells.”

Former high-school teacher Ed Williams, 52, participated in an immunotherapy clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital after he was diagnosed with advanced skin cancer. The trial evaluated a type of designer drug (called an antibody) that attaches to cancer cells and prevents them from putting immune cells to sleep. Traditionally, someone with his diagnosis wouldn’t expect to live for more than six months, but three years later, he is alive and well.

“Cancer has become a chronic disease for me,” says Williams. “I’m thankful for every day I have with my family.”

According to Dr. Song, who led the Ottawa arm of this trial, the historical one-year survival rate for advanced melanoma was about 25 percent. But with these new immunotherapies, she says the rate is now about 70 to 80 percent.

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are also investigating other kinds of immunotherapies, including replicating viruses. Dr. John Bell and his team are pioneers in this area of research. Bell recently helped launch a world-first double-virus therapy trial at The Ottawa Hospital. He also leads a national network, called BioCanRx, which is devoted to advancing immunotherapies into clinical trials.

“Viruses hold a lot of potential for cancer treatment because they can attack cancer cells directly while also stimulating the immune system, and we can tailor them for different kinds of cancer,” explains Dr. Bell, senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa. “The first viral therapy was recently approved in the United States, so we’ve got a lot of momentum, but we also need a lot more research.”

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are playing a lead role in taking immunotherapy to the next level. Scientists, oncologists and surgeons are working together and collaborating with colleagues around the world to understand how these therapies work at the molecular level and make them even better.

“We’re entering a new era of immunotherapy, but this is just the beginning,” said Dr. Glenwood Goss, an oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa who is also leading immunotherapy clinical trials. “The immune system is obviously a very powerful but complex weapon against cancer and we need to understand the system better in order to harness it full potential.”

To learn more about the research taking place at The Ottawa Hospital, go to TenderLovingResearch.ca