SCOTT GETTINGER, MD (left), is a physician in medical oncology at Smilow Cancer Hospital, where he took care of Melissa and got to know the Marottoli family. He is internationally recognized for his expertise in lung cancer treatment and research, best known for his work in immunotherapy and targeted therapy for non-small-cell lung cancer. He currently leads several clinical trials evaluating novel therapies for patients with lung cancer.
We asked him some questions about the nearly miraculous results he’s seeing in his work with immunotherapy. Here are his answers.
Q: What exactly is immunotherapy?
A: Immunotherapy for cancer is a type of therapy that uses medicines to activate and release the patient’s own immune system to attack and control cancer.
Q: Why is it different from—and potentially better than—traditional chemotherapy treatments for lung cancer?
A: Chemotherapy has limited effectiveness in treating advanced lung cancer. It typically produces only modest gains in a patient’s survival— months—at the cost of compromised quality of life due to common side effects. Immunotherapy is generally better tolerated than chemotherapy, with more durable responses and potential for long-term survival—and possibly, cure.
Q: What results have you seen so far in your clinical trials?
A: We started enrolling patients with advanced lung cancer in trials evaluating newer immunotherapies in 2009. Back then, no one believed immunotherapy would work in lung cancer. Yet from that first trial, we continue to follow patients who are doing well, without evidence of active cancer, now—over eight years from starting trial therapy. Prior to trial therapy, these patients had only months to live, having already received multiple standard chemotherapies or targeted therapies for advanced disease. Since these early trials, four immunotherapies have been approved for lung cancer.
Q: Does immunotherapy hold promise for patients with other types of cancers?
A: Yes. Recent success of immunotherapy across tumor types has provided just a glimpse into the potential of our immune system to control and eradicate cancer. Immunotherapies are currently FDA approved for several types of cancer.
Q: You’ve already had such spectacular results—why do you still need people to donate to this work?
A: We’ve still got a long way to go. Although immunotherapy has dramatically affected some patients, the majority still don’t derive lasting benefit. We now need to focus on why some patients respond to this type of treatment—and why others don’t. As we learn more, we will be able to control and cure cancer in increasingly more patients. The answers are there. With resources, we will find them.