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The hype, and hope, of immunotherapy
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Whenever there's the hope of a miracle cure for cancer, the world's media goes into a frenzy, and this week it's been for immunotherapy

Whenever there's the hope of a miracle cure for cancer, the world's media goes into a frenzy, and this week it's been for immunotherapy. While it makes enormous sense to support the immune system (rather than obliterating it, as chemotherapy does), there are worrying signs that hype may be mixed up with the hope.

For one, the immunotherapy drugs costs lb100,000 per patient, for another, the treatment extends life only by three months, according to the biggest trial that tested the drugs, and the whole thing was announced at a conference that's a shop window for investors.

On the face of it, immunotherapy indeed looks like the great cancer cure we've all been waiting for. Cancer patients have been "effectively cured", and in one trial, tumours shrank or even disappeared in half of the patients. But in the largest trial, the immunotherapy drug, nivolumab, extended life by only three months over chemotherapy in lung cancer patients.

Leading cancer specialist Karol Sikora warns that it could all be more to do with hype than hope. The fact immunotherapy was announced at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting worried him. "Positive stories are carefully placed by smart marketing people in Armani suits and dazzling power dresses on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry. It all sounds so convincing. But the reality is a sophisticated conspiracy to hype up products being sold to bigger companies by small start-ups, to get more investment for the industry from the City or Wall Street, or simply to ramp up share prices and make short-term gains," he says.

(Source: New England Journal of Medicine, May 31, 20915; doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1504627; Daily Telegraph website, June 1, 2015)


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