Cancer treatment has significantly changed over the last five years, largely due to research that has produced targeted therapies and immunotherapies, which are directly benefiting patients at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute.
Targeted therapies are drugs designed to interfere with specific molecules that tumors need to grow, while the therapies do little damage to normal cells.
“It’s treatment that is unique to an individual patient,” says Dr. Jeff Sharman, director of research at WVCI. ”For example, you could have five individuals with breast cancer, they might have five different individual characteristics that drive the disease. In many cases, we now have tools to identify those drivers and turn them off.”
Targeted therapies are a cornerstone of what’s referred to as precision medicine, a form of medicine that uses information about a person’s genes and proteins to prevent, diagnose and treat disease. Understanding the genetic changes that are in cancer cells is leading to more effective treatment strategies that are tailored to the genetic profile of each patient’s cancer.
Targeted therapies tend to have different and often less severe side effects than standard chemotherapy drugs. Because there are many types of targeted drugs, the side effects depend largely on what each drug targets.
Targeted therapies do have limitations, as cancer cells can become resistant. For this reason, targeted therapies may work best in combination with each other. Another approach is to use a targeted therapy in tandem with one or more traditional chemotherapy drugs.
Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, boosts the body's natural defenses to fight cancer. It uses materials made either by the body or in a laboratory to improve, target or restore immune system function.
“It’s normal human physiology for the body to see a cancer and try to eradicate it, yet cancers have evolved ways of hiding from the immune system. We’re learning what those on/off switches are that allow them to hide, and we’re now able to give medications that specifically go to those switches—what we call checkpoint inhibitors—and engage the immune system,” says Dr. Sharman.
Immunotherapies have been approved to treat patients with many types of cancer, but it is not yet as widely used as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Other immunotherapies are currently being studied in clinical trials.
It’s important to note that not every tumor responds to immunotherapy in the same way. So, while it is often the best treatment option available, it is not equally effective for everyone. Despite this, scientists and doctors continue to be optimistic about the future of immunotherapy.
“If you’d said five years ago, ‘Can you cure metastatic lung cancer?’—No, you couldn’t. We’re now beginning to see some cures of lung cancer, melanoma, kidney cancer and bladder cancer. It’s not happening in the majority of patients, but it is happening. And if it’s happening with our knowledge now, I can only begin to wonder where we’re going to be five or ten years from now.”