The tragic death of Wei Zexi, the 21-year-old Chinese university student who sought treatment for his sarcoma on the internet, has sparked heated controversy across the country. Wei stopped his chemo to seek an immunotherapy treatment at a top ranked hospital in Beijing, only to find that his cancer became more aggressive after the new treatment.
“The immunotherapy treatment I received at this hospital, after hundreds of thousands of dollars, was ineffective, and through my own research, I ‘ve found that the treatment technology was outdated and was no long used in the West,” Wei wrote in a post the day before he died in May.
While it is unclear what specific type of treatment he received, or whether the treatment was provided with quality, Wei’s last words before he died had given “immunotherapy” a bad name and put it under a negative spotlight. Some media reports have also labeled it as fake therapy, or an obsolete technology.
But in fact, immunotherapy, an experimental treatment that tries to rally the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer, has gained tremendous momentum in Western medicine, providing promising hope and optimism in the human journey battling the disease.
Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer has long been a medical dream. Cancer always finds ways to hide from the immune system or shut down its ability to fight. But according to the Times, new generation of drugs, which called checkpoint inhibitors, have been developed that allow the immune system to recognize cancer as a threat and to fight it by preventing cancer from shutting down the body’s defence system.
The drugs have been approved by the FDA to treat a variety of cancers – including lung, kidney and bladder. One of the drugs is known as Jimmy Cater drug, which brought former president’s melanoma in remission, even though it had spread to his liver and brain.
According to the Times report, a 53-year-old industry executive from N.J. was diagnosed with stage 4 non-small-cell lung cancer in 2014. Not responding to chemotherapy, he was put on two different checkpoint inhibitors in Mar.2015. Since then, the tumors kept shrinking despite some side effects. By the spring this year, his cancer was totally gone. He is now back to work and golf.
A long journey
Immunotherapy has come a long way in human journey to fight cancer. According to the Times, it started as early as 1862, when an American surgeon accidentally discovered that patients’ cancer went away after suffering erysipelas -- a bacteria infection. Suspecting that bacteria destroyed tumors, rather than the immune system unknown back then, he accidentally began to practise a crude form of immunotherapy by developing toxins with an extract of heat-killed bacteria. The treatment brought mixed results – while some patients were cured, others became quit ill.
后来，随着放疗和化疗取得突飞猛进的发展，毒素疗法逐渐被摒弃，免疫疗法几乎被淹没在历史长河中，直到James Allison 博士在1990年代研制了一种可以阻断免疫系统检查点的抗体。在动物试验大获成功后，一制药公司开发了人体使用的抗体治疗药物，并在2011年获得美国食品及药品管理局批准，从而开启了免疫疗法的新纪元。
Radiation and chemotherapy became a big blow to the treatment and the toxins were later taken off the treatment list. Immunotherapy had almost buried alive in history until Dr. James Allison developed an antibody to block the checkpoints in the immune system in the 1990s. After a stunning victory in animal tests, one drug company created a human version of the antibody, which was approved by FDA in 2011, marking the new era of immunotherapy.
Despite the promising results, immunotherapy is still used an experimental treatment, with a response rate of only 20-40%. The doctors are still facing challenges of finding why the drugs worked for some patients amazingly well while not working for others at all. It seems that more drugs to subdue other undiscovered checkpoints are yet to be developed.
It is unclear whether Wei Zexi falls into the category of patients who were not responding to the treatment or, he wasn’t provided with quality immunotherapy treatment at all. But some patients’ bad experiences have not made the scientific community less optimum about the amazing results that treatment may offer in the near future. At any rate, the remarkable success stories have led to rapid growth of immunotherapy as billions of investments are injected and hundreds of clinical trials are underway.
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