How science is helping the immune system find and kill breast cancer

“I want a double mastectomy.”

What woman would ever make that pronouncement?

Kathy James did. Luckily, a friend changed her mind

Kathy is a pharmacist who is well aware of the need for breast self-exams and performs them regularly. In May 2017, the 55-year-old felt a marble-sized lump in her left breast.

On her 26th wedding anniversary, Kathy’s radiologist told her she had metastatic breast cancer.

Kathy was convinced that the radical procedure would dramatically reduce the odds of having her cancer spread. Five years prior, it would have been her only option for trying to halt the cancer in its tracks.

Luckily for Kathy, that friend that changed her mind was a cancer doctor whose urging helped her get connected with a pioneering study to test a completely new way of fighting breast cancer…

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Harnessing the power of the immune system

Our immune system is in charge of defending us against invaders. That means that it attacks any organism it sees as dangerous or not belonging to us. An example of this system going awry is an autoimmune disease, where our body attacks itself.

So, why doesn’t this same system seek and destroy cancer cells?

Well, here’s the catch. While a disease-causing bacteria is an invader, cancer cells develop out of normal body cells gone wild. Therefore, it’s not easy for our immune system to see these once-normal cells as invaders.

In 2018, Dr. James Allison of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Dr. Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University won Nobel prizes for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.

Their work led to the development of checkpoint inhibitors, a new class of cancer drug that allows the immune system to see cancer cells as the invaders they are.

This type of immunotherapy treatment works best against lung, skin and blood cancers, but not as successfully against the more common and deadly cancers of the colon and prostate. Immunotherapy has been least successful of all against breast cancer.

Dr. Robert Vonderheide, director of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, explains the reason for this: “…most breast cancers fit into a category we call ‘cold’ immunological tumors, meaning the tumor has the ability to either exclude the immune system or hide from it altogether. That kind of cancer isn’t easily treated with current immunotherapies.”

Using chemotherapy to activate the immune system

For most cancer patients, chemotherapy can be devastating. It kills healthy cells along with cancerous ones, leaving patients debilitated and sick.

Now, thanks to the efforts of people like Dr. Allison, Dr. Honjo and Dr. Vonderheide, conventional treatments like chemo and radiation may be taking on a different role: that of antagonist, so that the real hero, the immune system, can go to work.

In cancers like breast cancer, where the cancer cells are notorious for shielding themselves from the immune system, chemotherapy can help bring those cells out of hiding and trigger an immune response that activates the natural killer T-cells.

Related: 3 T-cell ‘tricks’ to active your body’s own natural cancer-killers

Dr. Vonerheid is experimenting with ways to combine immunotherapy drugs and conventional chemotherapy and radiation to expose tumors to attack. The idea is to turn radiation and chemo into a sort of vaccine.

Not only could this be a more effective way to destroy cancer, but it could shorten the grueling courses of chemotherapy most patients undergo.

What researchers are finding is that, if you can have a synergistic effect between immunotherapy drugs and chemotherapy, it won’t be necessary to eliminate every single cancer cell. All it will take is administering enough chemo to activate the immune system, and let it take over from there.

Then, as with other diseases, a periodic “booster shot” could eliminate cancer cells before they join together to become tumors.

A success story

Dr. Steven Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute, was the pioneer in the field of immunotherapy for cancer. In the 1980s, he was one of the first to notice that cancer cells attract the attention of the immune system, and that some cancer cells are more vulnerable to attack than others.

Now, Dr. Rosenberg has designed an experimental therapy that is customized to each patient’s cancer. After testing it on patients with liver, cervical and colon cancer, he has moved on to the challenge of breast cancer.

Judy Perkins was the first breast cancer patient in his study. Judy had Stage IV cancer that had spread to her chest and liver. She had said her goodbyes to her loved ones and was waiting for the end to come.

Related: Supercharge you cancer-fighting T-cells

But within a month of receiving an infusion of immune cells, her chest tumor got smaller and softer. Within two months, the tumor in her liver disappeared, and now, nearly three years later, her doctors say she is in a durable regression.

Kathy is currently receiving inoculations of her cancer-fighting cells and is hopeful that her participation in the study will help make these treatments mainstream for future breast cancer patients.

While this therapy is as yet untested on a large number of people, and while work will be needed to make such a personalized therapy available and affordable, there is clearly hope for the future.

Editor’s note: Discover how to live a cancer prevention lifestyle — using foods, vitamins, minerals and herbs — as well as little-known therapies allowed in other countries but denied to you by American mainstream medicine. Click here to discover Surviving Cancer! A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding the Causes, Treatments and Big Business Behind Medicine’s Most Frightening Diagnosis!

Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.