Immunotherapy Summit Underscores Hope, Education and Patient Advocacy

 Gallery of the Sept. 15 NYC Immunotherapy Patient Summit co-hosted by the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center. (Credit: Columbia University/Sirin Summan)

At the recent Cancer Research Institute (CRI) Immunotherpy Patient Summit, co-hosted by the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC), more than 200 attendees—primarily patients and caregivers—got the opportunity to hear firsthand from doctors and cancer research experts about the promise of cancer immunotherapy treatment options. The aim of the half-day event was to provide information about the very novel approaches to the general public in an understandable way. (View a photo gallery of the summit.)

Immunotherapy has garnered recent media attention for its potential to offer cancer patients a treatment option that uses one’s own immune system to fight the disease. Charles Drake, MD, PhD, a leading expert in the field and member of the HICCC, gave a 20-minutes talk at the summit about the basics of how this type of therapy works. 

Dr. Drake discussed why an immune cell called the CD8 T-cell, specifically, is most important to cancer immunotherapy. He explained how these cells can be activated within a tumor to attack the cancer and ways researchers are examining to activate the T-cells outside of the body and then re-insert them in order to destroy tumor cells. Dr. Drake moderated a panel comprised of leaders in cancer immunotherapy, including Columbia’s Dr. Gulam Manji, MD, PhD, Dr. Catherine Diefenbach, MD, of NYU Langone Health and Dr. Jedd Wolchok, MD, PhD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

The panelists engaged with the audience and addressed their questions about the interventions, primarily on topics related to the overall success rate and available clinical trials. 

While panelists were positive and hopeful about cancer immunotherapy, noting a 60 percent success rate in patients, and also about treatment plans that combine the novel therapy with traditional ones, they each underscored the reality of where the field is to date. 

“We’ve seen the great impact of immunotherapy,” said Dr. Wolchok, whose expertise is in melanoma. “However not everybody responds [to immunotherapy]  … and there are side effects that accompany immunotherapy and those side effects are actually unlike the side effects that usually accompany other kinds of anti-cancer therapy.”

Dr. Wolchok and panelists discussed how they are able to dampen some of those side effects –which resemble the side effects of autoimmune disease—but that more work needs to be done in this area. Cancer immunotherapy, they agreed, has proven to be a promising treatment for cancer patients and the overall takeaway is that the road to perfecting the approach is wide open for more research and more discovery. 

In opening remarks, Jill O'Donnell-Tormey, PhD, the chief executive of CRI, shared that in the past seven years alone, the FDA has approved 15 different immunotherapies in 15 different tumor types and in some cases immunotherapy has been approved as a first line of treatment, replacing chemotherapy. 

“We are at a place that we’ve never been before,” she said. “We have the proof of principal that the immune system can indeed be mobilized to treat cancer but despite these remarkable achievements more research is needed in order to maximize the effectiveness of immunotherapies for more cancer patients.”

Karen Koeheler, a cancer survivor, delivered a powerful account about her experience with immunotherapy, having been told when she was diagnosed in 2011 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia that she would never be cancer free. Koeheler was successfully treated with CAR T cell therapy in 2014. 

She stressed to attendees to keep asking questions, be their own advocate and “keep at it,” and with respect to immunotherapy, “There is just so much hope out there.”

Hope and advocacy served as constant themes at the event. Said O’Donnell-Tormey, “One of the main things we hope you’ll leave with today is a sense of empowerment and how to better advocate for yourself or your loved one. I truly believe the knowledge imparted today will go a long way to giving you confidence to explore with your physician whether immunotherapies are an option for you.” 

Visit the gallery for photos of the Sept. 15, 2018, event, held at Columbia’s Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center.

-Melanie A. Farmer