New avenue in breast cancer fight
A laser technique that tricks the body’s immune system into recognizing tumors as foreign agents and attacking them is showing great promise, according to researchers who hope it could become a widely used treatment method for metastatic breast cancer.
The chief investigator in The Bahamas for the study is veteran medical oncologist Dr. John Lunn of the Commonwealth Medical Research Institute.
“Cancer cells are very clever in hiding themselves from the immune system,” Lunn said.
“So this technique tends to expose them.”
Two studies have been done so far on the use of the laser technique–one in Peru and another in The Bahamas.
Lunn explained that the non-invasive laser immunotherapy technique consists of two simple procedures: The application of laser energy directly to the tumor and the injection of a propriety immune stimulant around the tumor to elicit and augment the immune response.
The procedure converts the tumor into its own vaccine and stimulates the immune system to react to and remove the cancer cells.
“Laser energy is applied to the tumor and we think it makes the tumor behave like a vaccine; it changes the qualities of the tumor,” Lunn said.
“So the body recognizes it as being foreign. Normally tumors exist because the body’s immune system doesn’t recognize them. This little technique is trying to change the tumor into its own vaccine.”
Lunn said that not only did the tumors disappear in some patients using the treatment, but the disease that spread to the bones and organs also disappeared.
“Because the research is early, you don’t know how long these good results are going to last so we have to be very careful, “he said.” And we also have to do much more research. But the initial studies are very promising.”
Lunn said volunteers who came mainly from the United States and Canada either had an advanced form of breast cancer and had exhausted all conventional treatments or they did not want to take conventional treatments for advanced breast cancer.
They were “highly selected”, he said.
Laser immunotherapy has already been approved for research into metastatic melanoma in the United States, noted Lunn, who said the team intends to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States early next year for approval of this technique for metastatic breast cancer.
The laser technique is not new. The FDA has already approved it for research into metastatic melanoma in the United States.
Lunn stressed that the findings relating to the technique’s use in breast cancer are preliminary.
“And when it’s early you have to be very cautious and so much more research has to be done over a longer period of time,” said Lunn, noting that if Bahamian patients become involved in the research, the team would have to get approval from the ethics committee of the Princess Margaret Hospital.
The co-investigators for the research are Dr. Robert Nordquist of ImmunoPhotonics (Columbia, MO) and Dr. Orn Adalsteisson of The International Strategic Cancer Alliance.
If the findings are confirmed in future studies the technique could be groundbreaking, Lunn noted.
“As the population increases in age, this is going to be a chronic national problem, managing cancers,” Lunn said.
“So finding new methods of treating them is always important.”
The team notes in its findings published in the Photochemical and Photobiological Sciences Journal that metastases of cancer are the major cause of treatment failure and deaths. Many approaches such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormonal therapy, and other targeted therapies have been applied to manage metastases of cancer, the paper noted.
It says that so far the effects of the current modalities on metastasis are”severely limited.”
“Recently, cancer immunotherapy has made major conceptual and technical advances,” said the published work.
“Although there is still a long way to go, cancer vaccines have been considered as the ultimate tool for treatment and prevention of cancer, activating and enhancing the patient’s own immune system to recognize and destroy the targeted tumor cells.”
Significant efforts have been devoted to develop vaccines that could teach the patient’s immune system to effectively fight caner, in the same way that it fights an infection by germs, the researchers added.
It pointed out that conventional immunotherapies so far have only achieved limited success.
Researchers said they used a laser light provided by ImmunoPhotonics Inc.
They said much work is needed in a larger population of patients with triple-negative breast cancer in order to confirm their findings.
Noting that the laser technique has only been applied to treat melanoma and breast cancer patients, the researchers said it could eventually lead to its clinical applications for almost all solid tumors.
According to the team, the technique could be combined with many other immunotherapy modalities to further improve the efficacy.
“The clinical outcome of this study is promising, considering the severity of these late stage patients,” the researchers said.
“The systemic effects of these cancer patients demonstrated the potential of [the laser technique] as an effective, local, and safe intervention for metastatic cancers. It can reduce the primary tumors and metastases of the patients with far fewer harsh side effects of the traditional treatments.”
BREAST CANCER A GREAT BURDEN
Breast cancer remains a great burden for Bahamian women, Lunn said. In women with no special risk factors, there is a lifetime risk of one in 12 that they will develop the disease, Lunn pointed out.
Women with mutated genes have a 60 percent chance of developing breast cancer by the time they are 40.
Another breast cancer study has shown that Bahamian women with these bad genes are in greater numbers than their American counterparts. Bahamian women also tend to get the disease at much younger ages and tend to present with late-stage breast cancer.
In The Bahamas annually, there are at least 100 new cases of breast cancer, according to health officials. Most of them are treated in the public health care system.
The research Lunn and his colleagues have undertaken is supported in part by grants from the American Cancer Society Institutional Research Seed Grant, from the US National Institutes of Health and from National Natural Science Foundation of China.