Cancer immunotherapy gives patients more options, delivering results

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Bradley J. Fikes


Cures for difficult cancers are arriving, and more are on the way. That’s the message of hope delivered Saturday by local cancer researchers and a famous cancer patient at a forum on how the immune system can be activated against cancer.

Because cancers arise in so many ways, treatments need to be tailored to each individual’s cancer, the researchers said at UC San Diego, where new treatments with such exotic names as checkpoint inhibitors and CAR T cells are being tested. These indirectly attack the cancer by boosting the immune system’s natural ability to detect and kill abnormal cells.

Conventional therapy such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy aren’t going away, the researchers said. But patients who don’t respond to those are getting better options, said oncologist Ezra Cohen of UCSD Moores Cancer Center.

Cure rates for the most difficult cancers remain low, but they are rising with the addition of these therapies, the researchers said.

Rikki Rockett, the drummer for the band Poison, was recently placed into total remission from tongue cancer. It’s too early to speak of a cure, but no cancer can be detected in his body.

Rockett’s cancer was first noticed and treated in 2015. After a few months, it recurred. Rockett, who lives in Los Angeles, talked with his physician at the University of Southern California about options.

Grim choices

The doctor warned him his quality of life might suffer significantly.

“You might be able to eat, you might not be able to eat … You might have to speak with a stoma (opening in the throat) … That’s what the doctor told me.”

The effect on Rockett’s children, 3-year-old daughter, Lucy, and 7-year-old son, Jude, also weighed on his mind.

“I was getting ready to make videos of me talking about the most important things in life, so they’d have something with me speaking to them, instead of tapping it out on an iPad, writing it down. I wanted them to hear Daddy talk.”

Through medical referrals, and good fortune, Rockett met with UCSD’s Cohen. Rockett was given an experimental checkpoint inhibitor called epacadostat along with an already approved checkpoint inhibitor, Keytruda.

Checkpoint inhibitors inactivate a defense cancers can use to hide from surveillance by immune cells that would otherwise destroy cancerous cells. With the disguise removed, the immune cells can see the cells are abnormal, and destroy them.

“I know for a fact that it saved my tongue,” Rockett said. “It saved my life. Because even if they had taken everything out, it may have come back in a year or two.”

Toughing it out

It was a rough ride. The night after his first treatment, Rockett’s tongue swelled hugely, and he called Cohen.

“He said, this is fantastic. That means you’re responding,” Cohen replied.

Rockett then went through some of the side effects of his first treatment, including sore throat and loss of appetite. He then began spitting up big hunks of unidentifiable tissue.

After several weeks, Rockett’s tests for cancer all came back negative.

“At this time, I have no cancer in my body,” Rockett said to applause. “I can talk. I’m fine. And it’s because of the promise of immunotherapy. And not just the promise. It is working.”