Immune System Modulation
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Immune System Modulation

One of the best cancer fighters is your body’s own immune system. Scientists and physicians at the University of California at Irvine are studying treatments aimed at boosting the immune system’s seek-and-destroy response to breast cancer cells. The strategy is to give the immune system the competitive edge it needs in order to overcome the cancer cells.

Although recent treatment advances for breast cancer have led to patients being disease free for a longer time and improved overall survival, the majority of breast cancer patients recur. This indicates that occult tumor cells exist in our patients’ bodies even after our best treatments. The immune system has the capacity to “search out and destroy” virus infected cells throughout the body and thus, is uniquely suited to do the same for hidden tumor cells. The problem is that all cancer, including breast cancer, is different from an infection and the immune system has more difficulty seeing and destroying tumor cells. If we can make the immune system search out and destroy hidden tumor cells, then we can make breast cancer stay away even longer and possibly even increase the percentage of breast cancer patients that are cured.

Dr. Edward Nelson has studied an exciting new therapy quite extensively in the laboratory setting. This therapy could be used for anyone with breast cancer. “We have a particularly promising novel immunotherapy strategy that is close to being ready for evaluation in clinical studies,” says Dr. Nelson. This therapy targets the most potent immune system stimulating cell, the dendritic cell. The dendritic cell is “activated” to jump start the immune system for recognizing and destroying tumor cells. There is no other research group in the US or the world exploring this technology and system for breast cancer immunotherapy.

Dr. Rita Mehta, a medical oncologist also working with Dr. Nelson, is investigating different ways of giving breast cancer treatment so as to improve the immune system’s ability to fight cancer. Through the clinical trials that Dr. Mehta conducts, patients are able to gain early access to drugs like trastuzumab and bevacizumab before they are widely used in the community outside of UC Irvine. In addition, Dr. Mehta is exploring the combination of therapies with GM-CSF, an FDA-approved growth factor, which can help dendritic cells do their job better in addition to its main role in maintaining patients’ blood counts. Although her trials are not yet completed, Dr. Mehta has seen dramatic results in her study patients thus far. She is optimistic that this treatment plan will greatly improve patients’ odds of breast cancer cure.

For more information about ongoing studies, see the Research & Clinical Trials section.

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