President John F. Kennedy, in a speech to Congress, said, “We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.”
Certainly our motivation at the time was in response to the startling progress of the Soviet Union with their own space program. While it may have seemed quixotic then, in hindsight, the U.S. space program now looks like the beginning of a journey that catapulted the country ahead in modern technological achievement.
Given our current political climate, reaching for big, bold goals might seem futile. But give President Obama credit for his own ambitious moon shot, a national initiative to find a cure for cancer. The president named his vice president, Joe Biden, to lead the initiative.
The assignment seems apropos, given Biden’s own poignant experience with cancer. Beau Biden, his son, and formerly the Attorney General of Delaware, died recently of brain cancer.
So Joe Biden has special motivation. The good news is that, with a focused approach, we might actually get to a cure. Already, there are promising advancements all over the landscape of cancer research.
One in particular, after 10 years of accumulated science, appears to have fully cured one of our more famous nonogenarians—former president Jimmy Carter.
The area of research is immunotherapy. To me, that’s what makes it so exciting: the prospect that our own bodies hold the cure.
So, what cured President Carter?
To understand it, we must first understand how most cancers work.
In layman’s terms, cancer cells are very good at hiding themselves from our immune systems.
There’s an article on the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute website, entitled The Science of PD-1 and Immunotherapy, that describes the medical breakthrough. “This is a story about the velocity of an idea – a discovery whose potential to improve cancer treatment practically leapt from the test tube,” the article begins.
Cancer cells, meet T cells
So what is the science of PD-1? Basically, it centers around the discovery that human cells carry certain proteins that protect the cells from the body’s own immune system. One of those proteins is called PD-L1.
Turns out, cancer cells also carry PD-L1. In effect, cancer cells masquerade as normal cells, and, consequently, the immune system leaves them alone to do their thing. Which is basically to replicate and spread, as cells are wont to do.
What scientists postulated was that they could develop an immunotherapy that would help cancer patients fight off the disease on their own. Not with debilitating chemotherapy that destroys good cells with the bad, but with the patients’ own immune systems.
The immunotherapy would have to block or “hide” the PD-L1 protein so that the body’s own T cells could recognize and destroy the cancer cells.
A brilliant idea
It is an idea so brilliant and so brimming with potential that it has rallied the scientific community and the pharmaceutical industry.
According to the Dana-Farber article, over 60 clinical trials have been initiated, testing the efficacy of experimental treatments on many different forms of the cancer.
In 2013, Science magazine crowned PD-1/PD-L1 immunotherapies the Breakthrough of the Year.
So how was President Carter cured? Or was he? Well, the former president is cancer-free, but still taking treatment for the metastatic melanoma that he was diagnosed with in August. The treatments involve the drug pembrolizumab, which is an immunotherapy.
Wikipedia describes the drug as having been approved on October 2, 2015 by the FDA for the treatment of metastatic non-small cell lung cancer in patients whose tumors express PD-L1 and who have failed treatment with other chemotherapeutic agents.
Seems with President Carter, his doctors went pretty quickly to treatment with pembrolizumab. When your patient is 91, the reasoning must be that there’s little time to waste.
So, wither the treatment of cancer? Clearly, immunotherapy is a key, if not the key.
Godspeed, Joe Biden.