Mad Science

Today’s New York Times reports on risks arising from an approach for addressing cancer that’s been considered one of the most promising therapies in decades: immunotherapy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/03/health/immunotherapy-cancer.html?emc=edit_th_20161204&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

When I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research a few years ago, reports on the remarkable results of immunotherapy studies were everywhere. That same year, the publication Science named immunotherapy the most promising cancer advancement of the year.

While oncologists and cancer researchers are hesitant to use the word “cure,” more than one expert referred to immunotherapy as the closest to such an outcome they’d seen. While the treatment was (and continues to be) exceedingly expensive, and thus accessible only to a few, researchers had discovered that the immune system “remembers” what cancerous cells look like. As a result, the system responds to uncontrolled cancer replication and the tricky ways in which cancer cells mutate to stay ahead of therapies before the changes happen.

Now, though, the potential drawbacks to the science behind immunotherapy are becoming evident. Tampering with the immune system to make it resistant to whatever ill might come its way can also cause it to attack healthy cells and systems.

As I read the article in the NYT, the phrase “mad science” came to mind. When a finding seems too good to be true, sometimes it is–it just takes time to discover the downside to progress.

I’m hoping that researchers will figure out how to retain the promises of immunotherapy while avoiding the detriments.

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