Using body’s immune system to fight cancer

PHOTO: Using body’s immune system to fight cancer

Fighting cancer using the body's own immune system has been hailed as a breakthrough treatment and local doctors are cottoning on.

Last week, the National University Cancer Institute (NCIS) said that it has set up clinical trials for immunotherapy, which could extend cancer patients' lives by years. The treatment involves genetically modifying white blood cells to improve their cancer-killing abilities.

Once inside a patient, these cells attack tumours and stop their spread.

"Their normal job is to protect us from infections," said Professor Dario Campana, an expert in advanced cellular therapy at the National University of Singapore's Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. "But they also have the potential to kill cancer cells. The problem is how to harness that potential."

Prof Campana hopes to use the method to treat aggressive cancers, including myeloma (a cancer of plasma cells) and certain types of leukaemia. It could help especially those whose cancers have stopped responding to standard treatments like chemotherapy.

Immunotherapy made headlines last year, with many touting it as a potential cancer cure.

Local doctors are more cautious. "It may be unrealistic to expect that we will eventually be able to cure every single type of cancer," said Associate Professor Chng Wee Joo, a senior consultant at NCIS. "But if we can change cancer from something that is deadly, in a short time, to something that is almost like a chronic illness - like diabetes... that would be a good target."

The NCIS is also trialling new drugs and looking for patients who have exhausted all other treatment options.

It is not the only centre in Singapore to do research on immunotherapy.

The National Cancer Centre Singapore recently completed a clinical trial involving 35 nose cancer patients. Results were "promising", said Dr Toh Han Chong, deputy director of its medical oncology division.

However, doctors do not see immunotherapy - or other alternative cancer treatments - as a replacement for conventional ones. Rather, it is an additional tool.

"Chemotherapy is still fairly effective," said Adjunct Associate Professor Goh Boon Cher, who heads the haematology-oncology department at NCIS.

"We have to look at it from the point of view of having multiple treatments available."

This article was first published on July 5, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.