The Role of Radiation Therapy in New Anti-Cancer Treatment

As new immune-therapy drugs for cancer come to market, researchers are learning how radiation therapy might synergize with these drugs.

New anti-cancer drugs that take the breaks off of the immune system – giving it more power to fight a patient’s cancer – are starting to find their way into clinical practice. Widely called one of the biggest breakthroughs in medicine, these so called “checkpoint inhibitors” have given seemingly miraculous results in about one in five patients.

For other patients, the drugs seem less effective, and researchers are trying to learn why, and what can be done to fix it. In a story on WHYY’s, The Pulse show, one patient who did not respond to the new therapy had a surprise recovery shortly after being treated with radiation therapy. The radiation therapy released pieces of dying tumor cells into his bloodstream, where his immune system reacted to it and apparently mounted an immune response that removed almost all traces of his cancer.

“There have been a couple anecdotal reports that really ignited the field, and got the field excited about how immunotherapy and radiation can have clinical benefit,” Adam Dicker, M.D., Ph.D., head of Radiation Oncology at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson told WHYY. Currently, researchers, including a team at Jefferson, are investigating just how radiation therapy might boost immunotherapy through a variety of approaches.

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