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Heal thyself
Activating the immune system in the fight against cancer


August 2016

In the fight against Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC), a rare but deadly form of skin cancer, a small study for the drug Keytruda (pembrolizumab) has had promising results. Dr. Paul Nghiem, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, gave Keytruda to 26 patients who had advanced MCC. Over half of the patients (56 percent) saw their cancer shrink, while in four patients the cancer disappeared.

"The body has a mechanism so that if you have a chronic infection, your body does not attack itself," explains Dr. Stuart J. Wong, a hematologist oncologist at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. "Cancer cells use this loophole to escape the immune system and spread. Keytruda and a number of other medicines are able to re-establish a personís ability to kill off cancer cells."

According to Wong, this study and several others like it are transforming the way doctors treat cancer and improving the prognosis of their patients. "Now that we know this class of drugs works, we have many goals to make these drugs work better," he says.

"These kinds of cancers are complicated and not straightforward, so getting care from lots of team members can be helpful," adds Wong, who specializes in head and neck cancers. "Cancer is super specialized, so you need to find a highly specialized doctor. You donít get good at taking care of a type of cancer unless you do it a lot. Each of our oncologists focuses in on a few diseases so that theyíre experts on them."

In the next decade, Wong and his colleagues at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin will be designing studies that combine immune-stimulating agents, allowing the body to fight the cancer. Hopefully, the combination of different drugs will benefit many patients in their battle against cancer. m



This story ran in the August 2016 issue of: