Taking on cancer

28 Apr 2016
POSTED BY Y Magazine

Immunotherapies gain ground in the battle to beat the disease.

It remains one of the biggest diseases for which the cure has yet to be found. But research is making progress in the fight to finally beat a disease that kills more than 1,000 people a year in Oman. In the United States, statistics from the US-based Cancer Research Institute show that, every year, about 14.1 million people in the US are diagnosed with cancer, of whom nearly 8.2 million face death. The number of cancer patients is also expected to double by 2030.   

Regional statistics are also alarming. According to a report from the Centre for Arab Genomic Studies, cancer is the third leading cause of death in the UAE after cardiovascular diseases and accidents, a pattern repeated in the Sultanate.

The report says that data from the UAE Ministry of Health indicates that cancer accounts for approximately 500 deaths per year. The centre also reports that Arab women are more likely to suffer from breast cancer a decade earlier than their Western counterparts. Some of the common forms of the disease in the region include intestinal carcinoid tumours, cervaical cancer, bowel cancer, gastric cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma, among others. Lung and prostate cancers are the most common among men, while breast and thyroid cancers were more common among females.

Awareness, timely diagnosis and the right treatment are crucial in bringing mortality rates down, says Dr Urfan Ul Haq, a consultant in medical oncology at Abu Dhabi’s Burjeel Hospital, which is part of a group that also has a hospital in Muscat.

“Traditional cancer treatments such as drugs, radiation and surgery have mainly been used to deal with cancer. However, immunotherapy has been gaining ground among doctors and patients as it works to activate the body’s own immune system to fight cancer, especially in metastatic cancers,” says Dr Haq.

“The therapy involves various ways to stimulate the patient’s immune system against cancer as cancer cells already have some mechanisms to escape immune system detection.

“Immunotherapy helps the immune system recognise and target cancer cells. Clinical trials and research have shown that these treatments have great potential in targeting cancer more effectively compared to traditional approaches. They also come with fewer side effects, and offer benefits to patients suffering from a range of cancers. Immunotherapy has been an effective treatment for patients with certain types of cancer such as melanomas that have been resistant to chemotherapy and radiation treatment.”

Immunotherapy is being used extensively in the treatment of cancers affecting the bladder, lungs, breasts, colorectal area, brain, kidneys, prostate, cervical area and skin.

“There are variations in the type of immunotherapies used,” says Dr Haq. “As cancer cells have developed some mechanism to escape immune detection, so many of these immune treatments involve the use of removal of this protective mechanism and, as a result, the tumour is recognised by the immune system.

“Some of the main types include monoclonal antibodies, which are special proteins created to identify antigens (markers) located on cancer cells. These antibodies find antigens and use immune cells to attack the cancerous cells. Other types such as therapeutic cancer vaccines are also used. Unlike preventive vaccines, these treat a disease that is present, specifically stimulating the immune system to attack cancer cells.”

Other areas of research include Adoptive T cell transfer, which boosts the body’s natural cancer-fighting ability in T cells (a type of white blood cell). The therapy involves removing immune system cells, growing or genetically altering them, and then re-introducing them into a cancer patient. Cytokines, along with checkpoint inhibitors and immune modulators, are being researched and investigated in various cancers.

These therapies herald the promise of more effective approaches to prevent and treat cancer.

“It brings the focus back on the body’s immune system, which has amazing properties to regenerate, heal and defend,” says Dr Haq.

“Studies have shown that the results of immunotherapy are maybe more long-lasting in some cases so are called durable response. So immunotherapy is another arsenal in the fight against cancer in addition to other treatment. Using a combination of traditional approaches and/ or immunotherapy is increasingly being used in different types of advanced cancers.”

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