Immunotherapy proves breakthrough cancer treatment for patient

An Auckland cancer patient suffering from multiple tumors has made a surprising recovery after participating in a clinical trial that tested two immunotherapy drugs in combination.

The 54-year-old assistant accountant, Denise Monteiro, had stage four cancer, with tumors on her rectum, pelvis, liver, lymph nodes and lungs. But immunotherapy treatment changed her life.

†[The doctor] said I can consider myself cancer-free,” Denise told TWN.

Conventional chemotherapy and radiotherapy not only failed, but gave Denise serious side effects, including diarrhea, vomiting, bloating, weakness, headache, and hair loss.

“The worst part is that it killed my white blood cells. I’ve reached the limit [with just enough white cells] to live. I had to postpone my treatment a few times to give my body time to recover,” she said.

After her treatment, Denise was discharged from Auckland Hospital, back to her GP for palliative treatment.

All available chemotherapy treatments had been used, but none had worked.

Her only other choice was immunotherapy, and the hospital gave her two options for access to treatment.

The first was through a private clinic, where the treatment would cost about $40,000 and was neither approved by Medsafe nor funded by Pharmac.

The alternative was a clinical trial at the Auckland Cancer Trials Clinic, using a combination of two immunotherapy drugs.

Denise didn’t think twice. The clinical trial seemed like her only chance for survival.

She turned her life upside down. In addition to immunotherapy, she changed her diet to only organic foods and cut out sugar, gluten, dairy, processed foods, and red meat.

“I have no side effects from immunotherapy. However, not all people will react in the same way. I can only talk about myself,” Denise said.

She went to see a naturopath who prescribed vitamins and supplements to boost her immune system.

Until Denise’s two-year treatment ends in November, she will continue to have intravenous injections of the immunotherapy drugs every three weeks.

Doctors at Auckland Hospital said they preferred not to comment on the clinical trial in which Denise is participating

A University of Auckland researcher, Dr Alicia Didsbury, said chemotherapy kills all the fast-growing cells in our bodies without distinguishing between cancerous and healthy cells.

“That’s where you get your traditional side effects of chemotherapy — your hair starts to fall out and your gut is upset because those are your rapidly dividing cell types,” said Dr Didsbury.

Immunotherapy, on the other hand, targets your immune system, she said.

Our bodies could recognize and eliminate some infected cells, but tumors had the ability to turn off this function, and this is where the immunotherapy drugs came into play.

One of the drugs Denise was given is called an immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI). It blocks this interaction, allowing the body to kill cancer cells.

“ICIs have changed the way we approach cancer treatment,” says Dr. Didsbury.

“Instead of just targeting the cancer cells, we are now targeting the interactions between the immune environment and the tumor.”

ICIs have shown near miraculous results, like Denise’s case, and it sounds like they could be the answer to all cancers, but research isn’t there yet, she says.

“Currently there is not enough [clinical] evidence to support its use in all cases, but the good news is that ICIs often work in cancers that are difficult to treat with chemotherapy, such as late-stage melanoma,” said Dr. Didsbury.

While clinical trials may provide access to immunotherapy, she said there was little access to such trials in New Zealand.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had approved a new ICI for metastatic melanoma in March, and there were at least 33 clinical trials worldwide, she said.

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