The latest advance in immunotherapy offers great hope, but there is much to learn before it can be translated into treatment
These are exciting times to be a cancer researcher. The news this week that a woman’s advanced breast cancer has apparently been eradicated by a therapy derived from her own immune system is a development many of us have waited a long time to hear. It’s personalised medicine, taken to the absolute limit, and a huge testimony to decades of hard work by a team of US researchers. And it’s the sort of advance that genuinely deserves to be called a breakthrough.
But those of us who treat people with advanced cancer have to balance the optimism of scientific progress with sober reality – this isn’t yet a cancer “treatment”, in the sense that is meaningful to our patients. The techniques used by Dr Steve Rosenberg’s team at the US National Cancer Institute, and which many of us in the UK (including my own team) are also working on, are fearsomely complex, and currently far outside the routine clinical reality of an NHS cancer centre. That’s not because of funding, staff levels, or any of the other criticisms often levelled at our overstretched healthcare system – it’s because of the speed with which these insights have arrived. Naturally there will be a period of catch-up while they are tested more widely, and the infrastructure to deliver them routinely is put in place.