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Scientists are beginning to use the “cure” word for cancer

There’s this view of medical science that it moves at a glacial pace, that through constant false starts, multiple levels of studies, and a labyrinthine FDA approval process, that it can take years before early promising discoveries could ever bear real fruit. But to work in cancer research right now is to observe human ingenuity and progress in almost real time. Diagnoses that were considered five years ago to be death sentences are now being faced with optimistic prognoses. All this is because of advances in immunotherapy, where scientists train a patient’s own immune system to recognize cancer cells as harmful and attack them. The studies have seen such positive results that scientists are beginning to use a word that they’ve long avoided for fear of overhyping a still nascent treatment: “Cure.”

Take the 2013 Bristol-Myers Squibb study led by Dr. Jedd Wolchok at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Doctors used a combination of two drugs—one approved, the other experimental—in 52 melanoma patients, and found that treatment with both immunotherapy drugs resulted in rapid and deep tumor regressions about one-third of the time. This type of immunotherapy uses antibodies, given intravenously, which rev up the immune system. “We are talking about very significant survival rates here, with all the caveats of cross-trial comparison, of course,” Wolchok said. “But these are materially distinct numbers. We have spent several decades in cancer research learning better ways to treat the tumor. Now we are learning how to treat the patient.”