Mesothelioma is a complex disease requiring equally complex treatment. Sometimes the best way to understand something complex is to relate it to something a lot of people understand. For instance, the game of football is known and understood by many people, including, we’re betting, many of you.

In this article, we will explain the complexities of a promising new treatment using our football analogy, designed to demystify some of the more confusing medical information for us all.

First, let’s take a look at just what makes this new immune therapy tick.

New Player in the Game of Immune Therapy

Mesothelioma is one of the hardest diseases to treat because our bodies have a way of resisting cancer treatment. The National Cancer Institute (NCI), however, has recently begun a clinical trial, led by Dr. Raffit Hassan, involving immunotoxins that may help treat patients who previously did not respond to treatment.

National Cancer Institute LogoImmunotoxins are antibodies combined with bacterial toxins that only attack cancer cells while leaving healthy cells undamaged. Targeting cancer cells directly can be beneficial because it preserves healthy cells that are important to keep patients strong enough to fight their disease.

A relatively new treatment in the cancer world, immunotoxins may prove to be an alternative treatment for patients who don’t respond well to traditional treatments like chemotherapy or radiation. In other words, immunotoxins may lead to improved survival for many more mesothelioma patients.

Immune therapy treatment to date has been beneficial in several types of blood cancers. This is because these patients tend to have weak immune systems, which this type of treatment depends on in order to work.

Cancer patients with solid tumors like mesothelioma, however, tend to have strong immune systems. So, in order for an immune therapy to work successfully on them, their immune system needs to be somehow suppressed.

This particular study by the NCI combined an immunotoxin (SS1P) with pentostatin and cyclophosphamide in order to suppress the body’s immune system and reduce antibodies attacking the cancer drugs.

Our Football-Inspired Treatment Play-By-Play

The key to this study by the NCI are the drugs (pentostatin and cyclophosphamide) that suppress the immune system. We can think of these drugs as offensive linebackers. Since the body’s immune system is made to defend us from outside intruders (bacteria, etc.), we can think of them as defensive linebackers.

What the doctor said: “Mesothelioma is notoriously hard to treat, so these impressive early results are encouraging,” said Dr. James Spicer. “Linking an antibody fragment to a toxin is a potentially powerful way of delivering drugs to a tumor, but this and some other biological therapies have previously struggled because the patients’ own immune system fought back against the drug.”

Football Analogy: Our bodies have surprisingly strong defensive lineman (immune systems). The means the quarterback (the immunotoxin) has a very hard time trying to make a play with the receiver (the tumor).

The immune system is naturally against the quarterback because the quarterback is made up of foreign bacteria and antibodies, which the immune system (defensive line) is trained to block.

What the doctor said: “Controlling this immune response could increase the amount of drug that reaches the tumor. This new approach looks promising, and it will be interesting to see the results of larger trials in the coming years,” said Dr. Spicer.

Mesothelioma cytology

Football Analogy: By suppressing the defensive line and introducing a superior offensive line, the quarterback can finally start making plays. In fact, this offensive line may be able to take the team to the playoffs—that is, this immune suppressor could lead to a cure.

This is similar to what happens when we become immune to antibiotics. The problem is that mesothelioma patients can have heightened immune systems from trying to fight off the cancer, which means their defensive linebackers are already well trained.

Dr. James Spicer is an expert on immunotherapy treatments at Cancer Research UK.

Going For the Win on Mesothelioma

As seen in our football analogy play-by-play, sometimes our bodies can fight against us. In this case, they fight against the team we are actually rooting for, which is the team designed to heal us.

Football analogies aside, immune therapy to treat mesothelioma is one of the promising novel therapies currently on the rise. The main task continues to be finding a way to make it effective.
It wasn’t long ago that chemotherapy even showed an effect in treating mesothelioma. The problem is that despite this, many mesothelioma patients don’t respond to this treatment.

In cases where patients don’t respond to conventional treatments, an alternative must be introduced. Emerging treatments like immunotoxins is so important because the main line of treatment for mesothelioma patients is limited. That is why this study by the NCI is so promising. It offers more options to mesothelioma patients and may contribute to their survival, or a potential cure, in the future.

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About the Writer, Andrew Devine

Andrew Devine is a contributing writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He has developed an interest in educating patients and their families on everything from new treatments to what to expect after diagnosis.