Immunotherapy Options in Oncology
The term immunotherapy applies to a category of drugs that use a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Immunotherapy stimulates or enhances the body’s natural immune system to recognize and fight cancer cells.
Your body’s immune system is a collection of organs, cells and processes that help protect you from infection and disease. Because it has the ability to differentiate between the body’s healthy tissue from foreign pathogens, your immune system will monitor the entire body looking for these invaders, such as viruses or bacteria. Your immune system also looks for abnormal cells or cancer cells. These can be difficult to recognize because cancer cells mutate, transform and find ways to evade the immune system.
HOW IMMUNOTHERAPY WORKS
Cancer cells grow, divide and form tumors because they develop characteristics that allow them to hide from your body’s immune system. Immunotherapy broadly refers to drugs that work by multiple mechanisms to activate your immune system to fight and recognize cancer cells.
“I like to think the immune system as the guard dog protecting your body,” says Dr. Carrie Marquette, a physician at East Jefferson General Hospital’s Oncology Department. “Immunotherapy helps motivate or unleash the dog to fight cancer cells.”
Some immunotherapy boosts the body’s immune system in a general way, while others help train the immune system to attack cancer cells specifically. The following types of immunotherapy help the immune system act directly against cancer cells:
Checkpoint inhibitors: These drugs basically take the brakes off the immune system, which helps it recognize and attack cancer cells.
Adoptive cell transfer: T cells (immune cells) are taken from the body, engineered and delivered back to the patient. They are altered in ways to help fight cancer.
Monoclonal antibodies: These are man-made versions of immune system proteins. Antibodies can be very useful in treating cancer because they can be designed to attack a very specific part of a cancer cell.
Cancer vaccines: Unlike the vaccines that are given to prevent infection, these vaccines stimulate your immune system’s response to cancer cells.
“At this time, immunotherapy has been approved and is being used to treat patients with a wide variety of blood cancers and solid tumors,” Dr. Marquette says. “In my practice, I frequently consider immunotherapy as an approach to treatment in patients with lung cancer, kidney cancer, melanoma and lymphomas. Immunotherapy in general gives oncologists another way to attack the disease. In addition, immunotherapy is often well tolerated by patients.”
A POWERFUL APPROACH
While the concept of cancer immunotherapy is not new, the growing field is proving it to be a very powerful approach. Current research is focused on examining interactions between the immune system and how cancer grows and progresses, and if it recurs. Progress is also being made in understanding how the immune system might be involved in preventing cancer before it grows in the body. “This exciting new approach to cancer treatment has given us another tool in our arsenal to fight cancer,” Dr. Marquette says. “Immunotherapy attacks cancer by a different mechanism than tradition chemotherapy or targeted therapy. Your own natural immune system is strengthening and charged to recognize and destroy cancer cells.”
After completing her residency and fellowship training at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, Dr. Carrie Marquette earned board certifications in hematology, internal medicine and medical oncology. Her skills and passion for the fight against cancer make her a wonderful addition to the EJGH Oncology Department. “I feel fortunate to work with such a great team; EJGH has an amazing depth of resources,” Dr. Marquette says. “Effective cancer treatment in 2018 involves multiple modalities and specialists. “At EJGH, our Tumor Board and multidisciplinary clinic bring together a wide variety of specialists to discuss cases and formulate treatment plans. The board includes pathologists, radiologists, medical oncologists, surgeons trained in multiple fields, radiation oncologists, interventional radiologists and research nurses who all look at the patient’s care from a unique perspective. Just as technology is evolving rapidly in medical oncology with the advances in immunotherapy, there are also exciting developments in the fields of surgical oncology, radiation oncology and diagnostics. The active participation of the research nurses allows us to consider options beyond standard therapies. Bringing all of these experts together is a great opportunity for the patient’s care.”
Dr. Marquette says working as an oncologist is a privilege. She describes how she often gets to know her patients and their families on a personal level over the course of their treatment and recovery. “One of the things I love about being a physician is teaching patients about their disease and treatment options,” she says. “I think having more knowledge empowers patients. At the same time, I have learned amazing things from my patients about life, family and faith.”
When asked why she became a doctor, Dr. Marquette attributes her interest in medicine to an amazing, gifted high school teacher and exposure to medicine through volunteering. “My high school anatomy and physiology teacher made science and the human body fascinating,” she says. “While in high school, I also volunteered at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. I would say those two experiences sparked my interest in medicine. The journey to becoming a practicing oncologist has been wonderful.”
Carrie Marquette, M.D.
East Jefferson General Hospital Regional Cancer Center at the Yenni Pavilion
4200 Houma Blvd., Floor 3
Doctor of Medicine: University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
Residency in Internal Medicine: University of Alabama, Birmingham
Fellowship: University of Alabama, Birmingham
Board Certifications: Hematology, Internal Medicine, Medical Oncology