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William Donnellan, M.D.

Our immune systems are able to recognize cancer cells in several different ways. By the primary mechanism, tumor cells display proteins on their surface that are not displayed on normal cells. These proteins are called tumor-specific antigens, and they mark tumor cells as diseased or abnormal. This allows our immune system to recognize and kill them. However, tumor cells eventually develop ways to evade and suppress the immune system. This ultimately leads to progression of the cancer and resistance to treatment.

Efforts have therefore been made to prevent the suppressive effect that cancer has on the immune system. Recently, a class of medications called the “checkpoint inhibitors” has been developed. These medications work by blocking the signals that cancer cells use to turn off the immune system. Presently, several checkpoint inhibitors are FDA approved for melanoma and lung cancer. Checkpoint inhibitors are also showing promise in ovarian cancer, bladder cancer and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

The field of cancer immunotherapy is exciting and rapidly evolving. All immunotherapies that are currently FDA approved are available through Tennessee Oncology. Additionally, by way of the partnership between Tennessee Oncology and Sarah Cannon Research Institute, many of the immunotherapies under development are available through clinical trials.