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Immunotherapy is advancing cancer treatment

By Nandini Ignatius, M.D.

When someone receives a cancer diagnosis, he/she often feels overwhelmed. I have been in this position when my family member was diagnosed with cancer.  The experience I had while taking care of my loved one motivates me each day to strive to provide the most compassionate, high-quality care possible for my patients. As an oncologist, my mission is to help patients and families pursue the best treatments available while still finding happiness and meaning in their lives.

There is no longer a “one-size-fits-all” approach to cancer treatment. Even among patients with the same type of cancer, the behavior of the cancer and its response to treatment can vary widely. By exploring the reasons for this variation, we are now able to pave the way for more personalized cancer treatment. It is becoming increasingly clear that specific characteristics of cancer cells and cancer patients can have a profound impact on prognosis and treatment outcome. Although factoring these characteristics into treatment decisions makes cancer care more complex, it also offers the promise of improved outcomes.

We have made significant advances in treatment options available to our patients. With the development of immunotherapy and new checkpoint inhibitor therapies, we are able to offer treatments that not only extend lives, but are also less toxic and provide a better quality of life for patients. Many of these therapies and techniques were not available even five years ago. The immune system is always on patrol, like a police force charged with ridding the body of foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria or fungi. Lymph nodes, which make up most of the immune system, serve as police stations throughout the body.  White blood cells, such as “T cells,” fight infection and cancer. They are the police officers. When a foreign invader is detected, the entire immune system is alerted through chemical signals, just as a police station would radio police officers to alert them about a problem.

Cancer cells are not recognized as invaders because they are the body’s own cells that have mutated, so that once-healthy cells no longer behave like normal cells. The immune system doesn’t recognize this distinction, allowing these dangerous cells to grow, divide and spread throughout the body. One way cancerous cells stay hidden is by sending signals to the receptors at certain checkpoints on immune cells. Those signals trick the body’s police force into thinking the cancer cells are normal.

Immunotherapies fall into three general categories: check point inhibitors which disrupt signals that allow cancer cells to hide from an immune attack; cytokines – protein molecules that help regulate and direct the immune system; and cancer vaccines which are used to both treat and prevent cancer by targeting the immune system. Immunotherapy can be used in a variety of cancers including lung, head and neck, melanoma, kidney cancer, and in certain situations in colon, breast, stomach and prostate cancer. Immunotherapy in unique compared to traditional chemotherapy wherein it causes less toxicity and hence better tolerability.

I am very excited to be able to offer my patients more therapeutic options that meet their particular needs and are most effective against their disease. We have come a long way in treating cancer. Although some patients lose their life to cancer, the battle is never lost, it continues on.

Board certified medical oncologist and hematologist Dr. Nandini Ignatius is part of Hackensack Meridian Health – Raritan Bay Medical Center. Dr. Ignatius’s office is located in Suite 470, 2 Hospital Plaza, at Raritan Bay-Old Bridge. To make an appointment, call 732-431-8400.


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