There is an ongoing revolution occurring in the treatment of cancer. Unfortunately, it is easy for the public to miss the growing excitement for the new targeted therapies and vaccines because of the typical news media fascination with bad news rather than good.
For the longest time cancer treatments were primitive; consisting of poisoning tumors and hoping that more of the cancer died off than the normal tissue around it. But as genetic treatments and the study of proteins and enzymes have advanced, cancer is now becoming something which the body identifies as a foreign invader. The more we are able to engage the body's own immune system in the fight against cancer, the more treatments will look like vaccines.
Rindopepimut, Celldex's new vaccine against glioblastoma, one of the deadliest of cancers, is quite promising. In a phase II clinical trial published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, survival was fivefold better than those who didn't receive the vaccine. These results are dramatic when you consider how uniformly fatal this type of tumor is.
This vaccine opens a door a bit wider to immunological treatments of the future. The time is coming when all cancer treatments will likely involve the process of alerting the immune system and manipulating it to attack a cancer.
There is a financial downside: The price tag is high, close to $100,000 for treatment. It is often difficult to convince insurers to cover personalized treatments that work for some but not for others. Cost and profit are considerations, so is extending life when possible.
Marc Siegel, MD, is an internist and professor of medicine at New York University and the author of False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear