When Associate Professor Craig Gedye describes cancer treatment to his patients, he talks about “the knife, the fire, the poison, the keys and kung fu”.
The knife, fire and poison refer to traditional treatment. The keys and kung fu are two new kinds of therapy.
The knife is surgery, which remains the most favourable treatment for cancer. If you can cut it out, then you cut it out.
The fire is radiotherapy. This involves using high-energy radiation to kill or hinder cancer cells.
The poison is chemotherapy. It works by damaging cancer cells that are dividing rapidly.
The keys are new types of drugs – generally tablets – that are evolving. They are a form of personalised, smart medicine in which a chemical is designed to fit into part of the body. If it fits well, it’s like a key fits a lock. This can effectively turn cancer off.
Then there’s “kung-fu” [also known as immune therapy]. As Dr Gedye says, these are new drugs that “block cancer cells from attacking the immune system”.
“Sometimes you can give someone these drugs and the immune system starts to work,” said Dr Gedye, a researcher at Calvary Mater Newcastle Hospital.
For some people, immune therapy has been like a miracle. It has literally helped some cancer patients rise like a phoenix. But for others, it doesn’t work at all.
This is one reason why the medical fraternity doesn’t want to appear overly excited at the prospects of immune therapy.
Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that the therapy represents a seismic shift in cancer treatment.
Scientists are hard at work to take the therapy to the next level. They’re learning much but they want to learn much more. They’re trying to pinpoint why the drugs work for some but not others.
Novocastrians can feel proud that important work in this field is being done at the Mater.
Immune therapy is now a major strategy for cancer researchers.
A cure for cancer is the holy grail of medicine. While it’s hoped that immune therapy could one day become this grail, another optimistic goal is that it could transform cancer into a chronic disease to be managed over time. While cautious optimism is needed, it’s promising for humanity that this new form of cancer therapy is progressing.