The body's own immune system can be used to destroy cancer -- a field of study called cancer immunotherapy. This area of research holds exceptional promise for curing cancer as we know it today, explains Neeraj Lal, clinical research fellow at the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Centre in Birmingham.
In a recent TEDx Talk, Lal says that the immunotherapy area of cancer research had been niche for a long time, but has exploded in the last 10 years.
"It's one of the most exciting and important areas of cancer research today," Lal says. "The reason for this sudden change are the results in patients. The results in patients have been remarkable."
Lal uses skin cancer as an example. The survival rate of melanoma after one year had been only 30 percent, he tells the TEDx audience, but in the last five to 10 years, that rate has changed to 80 percent with immunotherapies.
"It's an improvement never seen before in a field or in cancer research, so [it is] truly groundbreaking," he says, noting that improvements have also been seen in lung, head and neck cancer, as well as his field of interest, bowel cancer -- or colorectal cancer -- the second-biggest cause of cancer in the United Kingdom.
How Cancer Immunotherapy Works
Immunotherapy works by "stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, stopping cancer from spreading to other parts of the body and helping the immune system work better at destroying cancer cells," according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The site lists several types of immunotherapy, including monoclonal antibodies, non-specific immunotherapies, oncolytic virus therapy, T-cell therapy and cancer vaccines.
"In the past, curing cancer has almost been a metaphor for something that's impossible or unachievable," Lal says. "But the work of a relatively small number of groups around the world over many decades has led us to this point, a point where the skepticism is fading and the field is about to have a massive impact on patients and society.
"I think this tells us," he continues, "that seemingly impossible things can be solved. In the case of cancer, I really believe that we are now in a golden era of cancer research and that this generation can solve this terrible problem."