Promising New Cancer Drugs Use the Immune System

By Kim Smiley

A promising and potentially powerful new type of cancer treatment uses the immune system to fight tumors.   The drugs are still in early testing, but reports are that they shrunk tumors significantly in 15 to 50 percent of patients.  Patients with different types of cancer have also responded, which is an encouraging sign that the new treatment may have wide spread applications.

A Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, can help illustrate how these new drugs work and explain why researchers and the companies developing them are so excited about them.  It may seem strange to use a root cause analysis technique on something positive, but it can be just as beneficial to understand why things are going well as it is investigate when problems crop up.  If you understand why a success occurred, the information may be used to reproduce it.   Building a “success” Cause Map is the same as any other Cause Map.  You start by identifying the impacted goals and then ask “why” questions.

In this example, the safety goal was impacted because the new type of cancer treatment shows promise, and the economic goal was impacted because the stock for the companies developing the new cancer drugs rose.   The new cancer treatment being developed shows promise because patients are responding to it and it is completely different from anything being used today.  The new immunotherapy treatments use the body’s own defenses, the immune system, to fight cancer.

You may wonder why drugs are needed at all if the immune system has the ability to fight cancer.  The answer lies in a  cancer tumor’s ability to hide from the T cells, the part of the immune system that detects bacteria and other “invaders”.  Tumors produce a protein on their surface that prevents T cells from detecting them so the immune system never even knows they are there.  A very simplified explanation is that the new drugs block the protein that hides tumors and allow T cells to detect them.   Once detected, the immune system will attack the cancer.

If immunotherapy is successfully developed, it would give doctors more options in treating cancer, especially those that don’t respond to the conventional treatments.  So far the side effects have also been minimal, far less than what is generally seen with chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Much more research is needed before this type of drug is widely available, but the findings so far are positive enough to increase stock prices and excite experts in the field.   I have my fingers crossed that the end result is everything researchers are dreaming it will be.