When Immunotherapy Gave a New Lease of Life

Mr Wong, a nose-cancer patient, who was referred to a clinical trial study in March 2009.                  Image source: http://bit.ly/1PocNru

A chance encounter with a clinical trial for nasopharyngeal cancer has saved Mr. Wong’s life from a deadly nose cancer.

49-year-old Mr. Wong from Singapore was diagnosed with stage-4 nose cancer earlier in 2009. He was battling for life as the cancer had already spread to his lungs and lymph nodes.

He was left with very little hope of recovery as his doctor told him that there was no way to completely get rid of the cancer.

However, within few weeks, an opportunity to take part in a clinical trial conducted by the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), came his way. Miraculously, within a year he won the battle over cancer and has been living cancer-free for the past five years.

The clinical trial conducted by the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) in 2009 used immunotherapy as a treatment strategy to fight cancer cells. Around 35 people took part in the trial.

Immunotherapy is a treatment strategy wherein the patient’s own immune cells are designed to attack the cancer cells. In Mr. Wong’s case his own body’s T-cells, a type of white blood cell were used to attack the cancer cells.

The T-cells were engineered to recognize only the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) protein found on the surface of nose cancer cells. Once the T-cell number reaches one billion, they are put back into the cancer patient. These cells recognize and kill only the nose cancer cells. The side effects of immunotherapy vary across many cancers but for nose-cancer the effects are not significant.

Stages of Immunotherapy. Image Source:http://bit.ly/1OM9rfj

“Many studies have shown that the cells can potentially continue to grow to 1,000 times their original number and stay in the body for as long as 10 years”, said Dr Toh Han Chong, deputy director of NCCS and a senior consultant at its division of medical oncology.

Dr. Toh further explained, “Every time we see a patient like Mr Wong with nose cancer that has spread to distant sites, we have to tell them realistically that they are not curable.” “He (Mr. Wong) has remained cancer-free for over five years. That is extremely rewarding because most people die from this disease.”

Last month, the results of the trial were highlighted at the inaugural International Cancer Immunotherapy Conference held in New York, as an example of how immunotherapy can be used to successfully treat some cancers.

The team is now conducting a phase 3 trial for advanced nose cancer, the first to be undertaken in the world.

However, medical experts emphasize that immunotherapy cannot be used as a standalone method for cancer treatment. Rather they need to be used in conjunction with other methods such as chemotherapy or surgery.

“The results of the trial are encouraging but you need everything – chemotherapy to shrink the cancer before you hit it hard with immunotherapy,” Dr. Toh said.

Source: Straits times