HARKER HEIGHTS — News circuits have been buzzing with information on immunotherapy, a new form of treatment for cancer. Some forms of immunotherapy treatments are only available through clinical trials, but others are available in the Killeen area saving a trip to larger cities.

Billions of dollars are spent every year on researching ways to treat and or cure cancer. Many forms of treatments exist, but the side effects of some of those treatments can be harsh.

Dr. Courtney Yau, an oncologist with Texas Oncology in Harker Heights, says immunotherapy tends to be much less harsh than other agents such as chemotherapy.

The immune system is the body’s best form of defense against germs and even some forms of cancer. However, cancer cells can slip in unnoticed by the immune system. In the past, the only treatments that existed were ones that work against the entire immune system, resulting in harsh side effects, including other illnesses that the immune system was too weak to fight off.

According to the American Cancer Society, immunotherapy treatments work in different ways, from boosting an immune system to work harder and smarter or by injecting man-made immune system proteins that can train a body’s normal cells how to attack cancer cells.

Current drugs approved by the Federal Drug Administration boost or take the brakes off the immune system and are much easier to conduct than other treatments still in clinical trials, such as altering a person’s immune cells and then placing them back in the blood stream to attack the cancer.

While immunotherapy remains a large area of research, the agents already approved by the FDA treat some forms of cancer such as melanoma (skin cancer), nonsmall cell lung cancer, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, squamous cell cancer of the head and neck, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and urothelial carcinoma (cancer in the urinary system) by boosting the immune system.

According to an article by The Associated Press, pharmaceutical companies, Novartis and Kite, are evaluating therapies for blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma that will work by removing the immune cells from a person’s blood, altering them and placing them back in the blood stream to attack the cancer. However, those treatments are only available in larger cities as part of a research program.

“They look promising but still have some complications,” Yau said.

Texas Oncology, at 800 West Central Texas Expressway, Suite 305, next to Seton Medical Center Harker Heights, is one of more than 175 clinics across Texas and provides FDA-approved immunotherapy treatment options for patients. Anyone in the right stage of cancer who does not have an auto-immune disorder could be a suitable candidate.

“Many patients may not be great candidates for chemotherapy because they are already quite ill, but they can be candidates for immunotherapy because we typically see much less side effects,” Yau said.

Seeing the success she has had with immunotherapy treatments, she thinks they can eventually replace chemotherapy as first-line forms of treatment.

However, like with any treatment, it isn’t effective all the time for all cases, but the response rate is better than that of chemotherapy with longer remission times.

The Texas Oncology clinic in Harker Heights, does not conduct clinical trials, nor do they provide radiation treatment. They see about 200 patients per month between the two practicing physicians at the clinic. They are open Tuesdays and Thursdays, but hope to expand to add another day in September, Yau said..

With immunotherapy creating such excitement among researchers, oncologists and the public, the Cancer Institute has designated June as Immunotherapy Month.

“This is a very exciting field of medicine for both patients and doctors. We are making leaps and bounds and moving forward drastically and I believe one day we will have a cure and I think we are getting closer,” Yau said.

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