Researchers working on the Cancer Genome Atlas have identified a number of genetic mutations that commonly occur in 12 different types of cancer. The discovery supports other recent findings on the nature of cancer tumors and the importance of the tumor microenvironment. As scientists expand our knowledge of cancer tumors, there is increasing evidence that tumors are defined less by where they occur within the human body than by their own biology and the microenvironment that contributes to their growth. Issels alternative cancer treatment center is unique in using immunotherapy to treat both cancer tumors and the tumor microenvironment.
As research into the cancer genome continues, scientists expect to discover additional commonalities between tumors located in disparate areas of the body. Scientists believe an estimated 200 to 400 gene mutations could govern all cancers. Eventually, cancers may be identified by tumor type rather than body location; for example, squamous cell cancer rather than uterine cancer or breast cancer. Such a change in our approach to cancer holds promise for the development of common therapeutic strategies that could be used to treat multiple types of cancer.
The search for tumor commonalities is just beginning. A recent report published in Nature, identified genetic mutations that trigger tumor development and progression that are shared by 12 distinctly different types of cancer. For example, breast, head and neck and ovarian cancer were found to share the same cluster of mutated genes. In most cases, tumors contained just two to six genetic mutations, leading researchers to believe that only a small number of genetic abnormalities are necessary to provoke cancer development.
As noted in our previous post, immunotherapy is redefining cancer treatment and providing answers to questions that have long puzzled cancer researchers. Of critical importance has been finding a way to pierce the shield that cancer cells use to hide from the body’s immune system attackers. In what is being heralded as a new era in cancer treatment, researchers are finding in personalized immunotherapy the key to unleashing the immune system’s super powers and smashing through cancer’s shields.
In studying the cancer genome, scientists have discovered that some cancer cells are able to thwart immune response by co-opting for their own use the molecular mechanisms that govern cell communication and turn on and off certain cell functions. In effect, these cancer cells seem able to disguise their biological signature in such a way that immune system defenders no longer identify them as invaders. However, by augmenting the natural power of the body’s immune system, immunotherapy is proving to be highly effective in unmasking these disguises and allowing immune system defenders to penetrate cancer’s shields and attack.
Top U.S. cancer researchers described the results being achieved with immunotherapy as “amazing,” “a game-changer” and “a watershed moment,” in interviews with the New York Times. According to the Times, “This period will be viewed as an inflection point, a moment in medical history when everything changed.”
A pioneer in the field of immunotherapy Dr. Josef Issels opened his first alternative cancer treatment center in Germany more than 60 years ago. We were among the first to demonstrate the success of immunotherapy in achieving long-term remissions of advanced and treatment-resistant cancers.
New discoveries in the field of immunotherapy are providing answers to a question that has bedeviled cancer researchers for more than a century: How are cancer cells able to evade the immune system and survive in the body? Advancements in genetic and cellular research are providing scientists with new insights into the unique ways cancer cells interact with the body’s immune system.
The immune system is the body’s first line of defense against disease, bacteria, viruses, abnormal cells and other harmful agents that invade and attack the body. When the body is attacked, the immune system mobilizes an army of white blood cells, including specialized T-cells and Natural Killer Cells, the Seal Team 6 of the immune system army.
In most cases, the immune system is extremely effective in hunting down and killing harmful invaders; but cancer cells seem to have a unique ability to clothe themselves in a shield of invisibility that allows them to evade immune system defenders. How cancer cells are able to do this is a question that has puzzled cancer researchers for more than a century.
Complicating the puzzle is the fact that when cancer cells are placed in a Petri dish and exposed to white blood cells in the sterile environment of research laboratories, the white blood cells immediately attack and kill the cancer cells. So why doesn’t this happen in the human body? How are cancer cells able to shield themselves from the immune system and how can the immune system break through that shield? Researchers are finding the answers in integrated immunotherapy.
“When Angelina Jolie learns she has a breast cancer gene, we don’t know what else to do, so we cut her breasts off,” Dr. Susan Love, president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, recently told USA Today. “We have to be looking for the cause. I worry that we don’t, that we’re paying too much attention to the treatment, which comes with a huge cost.”
Interviewed about the new U.S. push to develop a breast cancer vaccine, Dr. Love was voicing the frustration many feel about the focus of U.S. cancer research and treatment. Appearing to lag their European peers, U.S. cancer researchers are only now recognizing the importance of immunotherapy in treating cancer. Jumping on the bandwagon, many U.S. university centers are exploring immunotherapy’s holistic, non-toxic approach to cancer treatment and beginning to offer trials of dendritic cell vaccines. Issels already has more than half a century of clinical experience with immunotherapy and years of proven experience using dendritic cell vaccines.
At the University of Pennsylvania, doctors recently began testing personalized cancer vaccines made with the patient’s own immune cells. As noted in the USA Today article, in the Pennsylvania test women with an early cancerous condition called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) are being inoculated with an immunotherapy vaccine following surgical removal of breast tumors. It is hoped that the vaccination will prevent tumor recurrence; but trial participants will have to wait years before they know if the vaccine is effective.
The importance the tumor microenvironment plays in the development and metastasis of cancer is turning a new page in cancer research, treatment and prevention. As scientists work to unlock cancer’s genetic code, they are developing new understandings into how cancer cells communicate and the switches that turn tumor development on and off. At the core of many new discoveries is the complex relationship between cancer tumor cells and the microenvironment in which they develop.
European cancer researchers were early to recognize the importance of the tumor microenvironment. According to a 2010 Italian study, “Microenvironment components play a pivotal role in the regulation of the angiogenic switch and in cancer progression.” (Angiogenesis is the growth of new blood vessels necessary for tumor growth.) The Italian study concluded:
“The comprehension of biological and molecular mechanisms involved in the relationship between tumor cells and the microenvironment could unveil new therapeutic and preventive approaches to cancer.”
Within two years, European cancer researchers were conducting clinical applications of cancer therapies that targeted the tumor microenvironment, which a 2012 Belgian study called “an essential ingredient of cancer malignancy.” According to researchers at the Laboratory of Tumor and Development Biology at the University of Liège:
“The malignant features of cancer cells cannot be manifested without an important interplay between cancer cells and their local environment. … Thus in the clinical setting the targeting of the tumor microenvironment to encapsulate or destroy cancer cells in their local environment has become mandatory.”
One thing that distinguishes Issels Integrated Oncology from other U.S. cancer treatment programs is our use of integrative immunotherapy to specifically target the cancer tumor microenvironment.
Cancer researchers are exploring multiple avenues in their quest to develop a preventative vaccine for breast cancer. As noted in our previous post, vaccines typically target a specific virus or bacteria which has complicated development of breast cancer vaccine.
Unlike the smallpox virus or polio virus which provided researchers with a clear target for vaccine development, breast cancer appears to have multiple causes, only some of which may be viral or bacterial. For example, the human mammary tumor virus (HMTV) is found in 40% of breast tumors. While HMTV’s role in tumor development is not yet understood, at best future development of a HMTV vaccine would have the potential to prevent fewer than half of breast cancers.
Despite the complexities, development of a breast cancer vaccine is a top priority among cancer researchers who are tiring of chasing treatments without addressing the cause of breast cancer. Voicing the frustration many members of the cancer community share, Fran Visco of the National Breast Cancer Coalition told USA Today that in the U.S. “the vast majority of research dollars [are spent] on the next treatment for breast cancer. But we only see incremental benefits from all of these treatment drugs.”
To spur research, NBCC has launched the Artemis Project, a breast cancer vaccine initiative. Some of the more promising research under way is attempting to define the tumor environment, such as the role infections and proteins play in tumor development. Once again, traditional medicine is following in the footsteps of Issels’ founder. Issels Integrative Oncology already offers dendritic cell vaccines and cell therapies that target the cancer tumor microenvironment.