Understanding Immunotherapy Part 1: What is Immunotherapy?

By Amrita Bhatt, MRA Intern

If you follow science, you have probably heard about immunotherapy. In just the last year or two, immunotherapy has burst into the mainstream media, with coverage from the New York Times to Time Magazine bringing this emerging field to light beyond the scientific community. More recently, President Jimmy Carter helped put a face on immunotherapy when he announced its use in treating his metastatic melanoma.

While there is a broader understanding of immunotherapy now than there was a few years ago, there is a lot to discuss on this complex topic. We’ll be starting a blog series to help readers understand immunotherapy – and how it is being used to treat melanoma and other cancers.

Let’s start with a little background. Just 10 years ago, there were hardly any treatments available for patients diagnosed with melanoma, and a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma was an almost certain death sentence. Since MRA’s founding, the FDA has approved 11 therapies for melanoma. These have included targeted and immunotherapies – and combinations of the two. With nearly $68 million in funding to date, MRA continues to play an integral role in making revolutionary changes available for patients.

So, what is immunotherapy?

It’s a method of treatment that involves engaging the patient’s own immune system to fight cancerous cells. Four of the eleven FDA approved therapies since 2011 have been checkpoint therapies, including one combination therapy, and MRA’s funding has been vital to keeping the momentum going.

How does immunotherapy work?

Our immune system protects us by warding off foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. The immune system can also sometimes recognize cancer cells. However, since cancer cells arise from our normal cells, sometimes the cancer just isn’t different enough for the immune system to attack it.

In some cases, even when recognized as foreign, cancers use other strategies to evade the immune response. Immunotherapy works to boost your body’s immune response in order to attack cancer cells and prevent them from evading our defenses.

This video provides a visual explanation for how immunotherapy works.

Figuring out how to engage the immune system to fight cancer has been a goal for many years. MRA has funded a great deal of research in this area, including research on two proteins that allow cancer cells to escape attack from the immune system – PD-1 and CTLA-4.

In this continuing blog series, we’ll explain what these proteins are and how MRA funded researchers are strengthening our understanding of their role in cancer progression and treatment. Immunotherapy is broadening the scope of patient therapies and we must continue to fund vital research that keeps the momentum going.

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Melanoma News Round-Up August 16, 2013

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It’s been a big two weeks for melanoma-related news and stories.  Check out the links below to catch up on teen tanning bed bans, melanoma research, and UPF clothing!

No bronzing, no smoking via the Chicago Tribune

Melanoma refuses to abide the laws of general civilization via KevinMD.com

Lambrolizumab demonstrates significant antitumor activity in melanoma via OncLive

Specialists tracking how brain reacts to UV light in tanning study via UT Southwestern Medical Center

Soccer Star Landon Donovan Shares His Skin-Saving Tips via Fitness Magazine

What You Need to Know About Sun Protective Clothing via Good Housekeeping

Age-Related Variations Observed in Treatment of Melanoma via the ASCO Post

Melanoma News Round-Up July 12, 2013

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There was significant melanoma coverage in the healthcare, science, and medical world this week. Click on the following links to recap or to learn more.  

Experimental Melanoma Vaccine Shows Promise in Study via WebMD

One Tumor Surprisingly More Deadly Than Multiple Melanomas via Medical News Today

GSK files melanoma drug combination early in race to market via Reuters

Senators Push FDA for Stronger Sunscreen Standards via Roll Call

Skin Cancer on the Rise in Young Women via New York Times

Young men more likely than young women to die of melanoma, study says via Washington Post

Melanoma News Round-Up June 7, 2013

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Promising New Cancer Drugs Empower the Body’s Own Immune System via the New York Times

MSK Researchers Report Major Advances in Treatment for Metastatic Eye and Skin Melanoma via Memorial Sloan Kettering

Meet the New Class of Drugs Being Deployed in the the Struggle Against Cancer: Checkpoint Blockade via the Economist

For a Boomer, Sunblocks Came Too Late and Cancer Too Soon via the New York Times

What Makes a Breakthrough Cancer Drug? via the Wall Street Journal

Nevada Bans Indoor Tanning for Minors via Metro News US

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Melanoma News Round-Up May 24, 2013

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Lots of MRA and melanoma news came out this past week; here are some highlights:

Melanoma News

Skin Cancer Strikes Men Differently

Human Immune-Boosting Cancer Drugs Seen Extending Lives

Melanoma Treatment Harnesses Immune System to Combat Cancer Cells

ASCO ’13 Preview: New ‘Anti-PD-1’ Therapies Shrink Tumors

My “truly remarkable” cancer breakthrough

Leveraged Finance Fights Melanoma

Scene Last Night: MoMA, 92Y and Melanoma Research Parties

Wall Street’s A-List Turns Out to Fight Skin Cancer

Private Equity Industry Fights Melanoma

Welcome!

Wendy Selig, MRA President & CEOWe are delighted to be launching the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) blog – welcome!  We felt the name Melanoma Focus had important significance because MRA is singularly focused on defeating melanoma and moving toward a day when no one suffers or dies from this deadly cancer.  And we know how important it is that we elevate the focus and attention paid to this insidious disease among all stakeholders – patients, their families, all who are at risk and our growing cadre of allies across the non-profit, for-profit and government sectors.

As part of MRA’s focus on melanoma, we stay connected with news and developments related to academic melanoma research, healthcare policy and commercial drug development.  We hope this blog can serve as a resource for those looking for melanoma news and the latest developments in the field.

MRA is not alone in the fight against melanoma—we are joined by dozens of committed corporate and non-profit allies helping us raise awareness and research funds.  We will use this blog to showcase the unique platforms and empowering information our allies offer, as well as to highlight the innovative collaborations that we are pursuing to help defeat melanoma together.

Every eight minutes, someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with melanoma and every hour someone succumbs to this terrible disease.  Each of those individuals has a story to tell.  Our partners, sponsored investigators, and supporters all have unique stories about how melanoma touched their lives and why they chose to get involved with MRA.   Melanoma Focus will serve as a place to share these diverse stories and experiences with a wider audience.

We hope that you will enjoy the blog and join the melanoma discussion, either by commenting here or by engaging with MRA on social media.  Together, we can get to a day where no one suffers or dies from melanoma.

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Wendy K.D. Selig, President & CEO