Unfortunately, one disease that the immune system has always had trouble effectively combatting is cancer. Innovative new treatments, however, are giving our immune systems the tools they need to fight cancer the same way they fight infectious diseases.

“This is going to be huge”

Immuno-oncology, the study of immune system therapies for cancer, has been around since the late 1800s, but most of the major developments in the field have happened in the last five or six years. Arguably the biggest breakthrough has been the development of immune checkpoint blockade technology, which selectively turns off braking mechanisms in the body’s T-cells, allowing them to attack cancer cells they would otherwise have mistakenly let pass as healthy.

“This is going to be huge,” says Dr. Michael Smylie of the Department of Oncology at the University of Alberta. “I think these immune checkpoint inhibitors will revolutionize cancer treatment.” Dr. Smylie is not alone in thinking this way. Science, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, named advances in immuno-oncology as the number one scientific achievement of the year in 2013.

Lives are already being extended

Immune checkpoint blockade therapies are already seeing clinical use in Canada and the United States. Lorne Cochrane of Alberta was diagnosed with advanced stage-4 lung cancer in February of 2012. “The doctor basically told me that there was nothing they could do,” says Lorne. “A person with lung cancer at that stage usually has about 12 or 13 months of life expectancy, and that’s with treatment. I knew that the reality was that I was going to be dead in a year or so.”

“I never had any side effects, and all my tumours everywhere disappeared within 15 weeks.”

Lorne went through months of chemotherapy until he stopped responding. Eventually, he was taken off all treatments and sent home. “I had my 53rd birthday and everyone who showed up knew it would be my last one, because it was obvious that I had been sent home to die.”

A short while later, however, Lorne was admitted to an immuno-oncology treatment trial. “They put the drugs through me by IV,” recalls Lorne. “I never had any side effects, and all my tumours everywhere disappeared within 15 weeks. My wife was in total disbelief looking at the CT scan.” Now, 4 years on from the day he was given 12 months to live, Lorne is alive, happy, and symptom-free, spending his time on the golf course, with his grandchildren, and sharing his story with other lung cancer patients to let them know there is hope.

Patient access

While the introduction of life-extending immuno-oncology therapies is good news for Canadian patients, the Canadian health care system will face a challenge in managing and paying for new treatments like the one used by Lorne.    
The value of hope, however, cannot be overstated. “We always try not to give false hope, but we can give hope to our patients today where we couldn’t before,” says Dr. Smylie. “We are offering more long-term survival to more patients.” And when you hear stories such as Lorne’s, it’s definitely time to sit up and take note.