Cancer patient "grateful" for immunotherapy; new study shows its promise

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COLUMBIA - Cancer patient Ruth Wright picked a newer type of treatment, and it has made all the difference. 

Wright was originally diagnosed with Stage I cancer. She said she made the decision not to seek out treatment after seeing the effects of chemotherapy on her parents, both of whom died of cancer. 

That all changed when she later got in a minor car accident and her x-ray showed the cancer had spread to her lungs, brain, esophagus and lymph nodes. She was then introduced to Dr. Sindhu Singh, an oncologist at MU Hospital, who finally offered a treatment that Wright was on board with: immunotherapy. 

"I was never in any pain," Wright said. "I think people wondered if I really even had cancer." 

A major study published by the New England Journal of Medicine in April showed immunotherapy can nearly double the survival time of some patients when combined with chemotherapy.

The study was on lung cancer patients. Wright has breast cancer. The study focused on combination therapy, while Wright chose immunotherapy alone.

But cancer experts say Wright's treatment is proving effective against a wide range of cancers.

Dr. Joseph Muscato, the medical director at the Steward Cancer Center at Boone Hospital said a crucial role of the immune system is recognizing and fighting off foreign cells. However, the body doesn't recognize cancer cells as foreign. The immunotherapy drugs allow the immune system to attack the cancer cells while leaving the normal ones alone. 

"What we've finally figured out that there are some ways to trick the immune system into recognizing cancer cells for what they are," Muscato said. 

The lung cancer study involved 616 patients at 118 medical facilities internationally. One group received chemotherapy and immunotherapy and a smaller group was treated only with chemotherapy. The patients who received the combined therapy had a 48 percent decrease in chances of progression or death. 

Muscato said previous trials had smaller sample sizes, so the concern was whether or not the study could be replicated. 

"We in this field have to look very carefully at the data and ask is this really something that changes things," he said. "But this one is a game changer at this point." 

The impact of immunotherapy is significant.

“It adds almost 12 months to a patient’s life.” said Dr. Sindhu Singh, an oncologist with MU Hospital.

It's also considerably simpler than chemotherapy. 

"The beauty of immune therapy is that the same drug can be used to fight different cancers, but we have to use different chemotherapy regimens for different cancers," Singh said. "For example I have a patient with kidney cancer and colon cancer at the same time, which require different chemotherapies, but I am treating him with immune therapy for both cancers."

Wright said doctors were adamant that she had chemotherapy or radiation. She didn't want to.

"I had led a good life, I was happy and felt good and I wanted to continue just enjoying whatever life I had," she said.

It has been a year since Wright started immunotherapy. She has been in remission for more than three months.

"I have a life and I’m supposed to take care of my body and Dr. Singh understood that," Wright said. "I’m grateful I got it and grateful she didn't just listen to me, but she heard me.”

Both Singh and Muscato said there is still a long way to go in finding a cure, but any progress is good. 

“And once we made this landmark step, we can add more steps to it in the future," Singh said. "Then we open up, you know, essentially limitless possibilities and that’s the power of this study.”