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Experts say immunotherapy deserves cautious optimism

Photo: Immunotherapy deserves cautious optimism
Immunotherapy is on the lips of health professionals at the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia's Annual Scientific Meeting in Sydney.

Immunotherapy is set to transform the landscape of how cancer is treated in the next five to 10 years however Australians have been cautioned it won't be the miracle cure for every patient.

Immunotherapy drugs like pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo) work by stimulating a person's immune system to fight the cancer.

Opdivo, hailed as a "revolution" in cancer treatment, made headlines in 2016 when it was revealed melanoma patient and Hawks AFL star Jarryd Roughead responded well to treatment in 2016. It has since been listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for patients with advanced lung and renal cancer.
Professor John Cebon, Medical Director at the Olivia Newton John Cancer Centre in Melbourne, says there is now data to show good benefit of immunotherapy in 20 different cancer types, including melanoma, lung cancer, kidney cancer, stomach and colon cancer.

"For a lot of those cancers these drugs are pretty effective," Professor Cebon said after speaking at the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia's Annual Scientific Meeting in Sydney.

The expert physician and researcher says immunotherapy is the way forward in cancer treatment as the gains made through the traditional therapies get smaller and smaller.

"There's still ways of improving on chemotherapy but the major gains have been made already, likewise for surgery and radiotherapy."

"We are just starting to see the benefits and there are still big improvements being made with clinical trials," Prof Cebon told AAP.

But there is still a long way to go and while most cancer types respond to immunotherapy, not all patients respond.

Professor Phyllis Butow, President, Clinical Oncology Society of Australia shares the same cautious optimism.

"Immunotherapy is the new up and coming approach that has really transformed the care of some of the cancers," said Prof Butow.

"The studies are showing that perhaps for the first time in some of these patients with metastatic disease that has spread may be responsive to treatment where we have not been able to offer much in the past."

It's also important to note that a lot these drugs are currently only available to cancer patients through clinical trials, both experts said.

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