Research studies called clinical trials allow scientists and doctors to experiment with conventional drugs and therapies in different combinations and doses, as well as test the safety and effectiveness of entirely new methods of treatment. The ultimate goal of these trials is to find new and improved treatment strategies the FDA can approve to treat a certain diagnosis.
Doctors are currently testing several innovative therapies, and our Patient Advocates specialize in helping patients find clinical trials that may expand their treatment options.
Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that helps the body’s immune system fight cancer. The immune system is the body’s protection mechanism, designed to defend against bacteria, viruses and toxins, and it removes dead or damaged cells. When the immune system recognizes something that shouldn’t be in the body, immune cells attack the target.
However, because cancer cells appear very similar to healthy cells, the immune system may not recognize cancer cells as something dangerous, or the immune system may become too weak to fight the cancer on its own. This is where immunotherapy comes in.
- Active immunotherapy helps the body recognize the cancer as foreign, allowing the immune system to specifically target and destroy cancer cells, while leaving noncancerous cells alone. A doctor injects the patient with antigens that mimic the surface of the cancer cells. When the immune system detects these antigens, it provokes an immune response against the cancer.
- Passive immunotherapy attacks the cancer directly with immune compounds created in the lab such as antibodies, cytokines, T cells or macrophages. Rather than waiting for patient’s immune system to produce compounds on its own, the doctor injects the patient with ready-made compounds tailored to fight the cancer.
Immunotherapy has been making strides in the fight against cancer. The FDA has approved immunotherapy to treat some types of cancers, and it is now the focus of some mesothelioma clinical trials. Immunotherapy is most successful when used in addition to standard treatments.
The targeted approach of immunotherapy can reduce the side effects patients experience during cancer treatment. Researchers hope that one day immunotherapy will be effective enough that patients won’t have to endure the vomiting and hair loss that typically accompany chemotherapy and radiation.
However, immunotherapy does have some side effects of its own, which are the result of kick-starting the immune system:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Chronic fatigue
- Low fever
- Changes in blood pressure
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses a special light-activated drug called a photosensitizer to kill cancer cells. The most common photosensitizer used to treat pleural mesothelioma is porfimer sodium, more commonly known as Photofrin.
- The drug is usually injected into a vein, allowing it to spread throughout all the body’s cells.
- It remains in cancerous cells longer than in healthy cells, and treatment begins two or three days after the drug has left most of the healthy cells.
- The doctor targets specific areas with light to activate the drug, inducing a chemical reaction that kills the cancerous cells. Photofrin reacts the best to red light.
- Because PDT does not target healthy cells, this pleural mesothelioma treatment has fewer side effects than standard chemotherapy.
Photodynamic therapy has shown the best results when used alongside surgery as part of a multimodal treatment approach. In a study published in 2012, a total of 38 pleural mesothelioma patients underwent a radical pleurectomy and intraoperative photodynamic therapy. The resulting median survival time after treatment was 31.7 months.
Virotherapy and Gene Therapy
Viral diseases modify the DNA of the body’s cells, forcing host cells to stop their normal function and instead produce more copies of the virus. Though natural viruses can cause a variety of dangerous illnesses, some researchers are now trying to engineer viruses to cure cancer. In theory, a virus could be specially designed to do one of the following:
- Infect and kill only cancer cells.
- Repair the DNA of cancer cells so they no longer divide and grow out of control.
- Modify the DNA of cancer cells to make them vulnerable to a chemotherapy drug that will have no effect on normal cells.
In each case, the treatment leaves healthy cells unharmed. The technologies of virotherapy and gene therapy are still highly experimental, but they offer the possibility of an effective cancer therapy with much less severe side effects than chemotherapy and radiation.