Jul 07, 2017 1:00 PM

 Kenneth Grossmann, MD, PhD

Our bodies fight cancer more than we really know, says Kenneth Grossmann, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Utah (U of U). And, he adds, advances in medicine can help the immune system fight cancer even better.

On June 29, Grossmann spoke at a Cancer Summit hosted by St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson, Wyo., an affiliate of HCI and U of U Health. The summit focused on immunotherapy, a type of therapy that stimulates or suppresses the immune system to help the body fight cancer.

A packed room of patients and community members attended the summit to learn about immunotherapy and what patients can expect from recent advances in cancer care at St. John’s Medical Center and HCI.

“We’ve really evolved in our ability to treat cancer here in Jackson and in Teton County,” said Paul Beaupré, MD, CEO of St. John’s Medical Center.

 “We’re beginning to crack the code of cancer,” added Grossmann. “It’s all about figuring out how to get our bodies to do what they’re supposed to do naturally.”

Many immunotherapy advances originated from research on metastatic melanoma. Since the late 1800s, the medical community has known that the immune system is able to kill some cancer cells in diseases like melanoma. However, the immune system can’t completely fight off melanoma. And once the cancer has spread, it becomes very hard to treat. Chemotherapy drugs are not very effective against advanced melanoma, and for many years there were no improvements in treatment options.

Then, in 2009, major breakthroughs in immunotherapy began to offer more options for advanced melanoma patients. 

According to the National Cancer Institute, “One reason that cancer cells thrive is because they are able to hide from your immune system.” Some immunotherapy treatments “mark” cancer cells so the immune system can recognize and fight them more easily. Other treatments enhance the immune system’s response to cancer cells.

Some immunotherapies have been approved to treat people with several types of cancer, and many others are being studied in clinical trials. While more research on immunotherapy is needed, it has already improved the lives of some patients.

“When I started my job at HCI about 10 years ago, only 5-10% of my patients would make it two years,” Dr. Grossmann said. Now, with immunotherapy, especially when combined with other therapies, he expects significant improvements in survival rates.

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