• Immune System Cancer Research

Pioneering Cancer Research at Ingalls: Tapping into the Body’s Immune System to Fight Cancer

Through its nationally recognized cancer research program, Ingalls Memorial Hospital recently became the first in the U.S. to offer a groundbreaking new drug for the treatment of advanced bladder cancer — and one of only a handful in the nation to offer the very same therapy for advanced lung cancer — by boosting the body’s immune system.

And the equally groundbreaking results are bringing new hope to patients who thought they were out of options.

The novel treatment is one of the latest advances in the burgeoning field of immunotherapy. Called an immune checkpoint inhibitor, the drug (MPDL3280A) unleashes the body’s immune system to fight off the proliferation of cancer cells.

How Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors Work

The body’s immune system, which is made up of special cells, proteins, tissues, and organs, does a great job of keeping people healthy in most cases. Individual cells serve the overall system; when a cell has problems that cannot be corrected, it’s supposed to die.

Sometimes it dies for internal reasons, but the immune system also polices cells and kills cells that it has determined to be faulty. But sometimes cancer cells work in such a way that they “fool” the immune system into turning its defenses off – and are allowed to grow unchecked.

“The ability to turn off is a necessary ‘checkpoint’ that protects normal tissue from being attacked by the immune system – much like the brakes on a car,” explains James Wallace, M.D., oncologist/hematologist on staff at Ingalls.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors work by either preventing the tumor from putting on the immune system’s brakes, or by stimulating the body’s own immune response to fight back.

“One of the most exciting aspects of the innovative treatment is that, unlike conventional chemotherapy drugs and targeted agents, it has the potential to work universally in all cancers,” adds Mark Kozloff, M.D., Medical Director of Ingalls Cancer Care. “Instead of targeting specific tumor cells, which can vary dramatically from patient to patient, immune checkpoint inhibitors target the immune system, which is essentially the same in everyone.”

In addition to bladder and lung cancers, immune checkpoint inhibitors are being used to successfully treat deadly melanoma with much more potential down the road.

“Part of our commitment to bringing innovative new therapies to our patients at Ingalls stems from moments like these… seeing our patients respond in such an exceptional way,” Dr. Wallace said. “It is further rewarding to see happiness brought to families once feeling stuck in a hopeless situation!”

For more information about these and other cancer research studies at Ingalls, call 708.915.HOPE (4673).

Suzanne's Story

The mother-son dance is one of the sweetest moments at a wedding. It’s filled with love, pride, joy – and just a hint of sadness as a mother watches her son become a husband.

Cancer survivor dances with son

For Suzanne Duerinck of Homewood, this treasured moment in time was also filled with gratitude. That’s because the very fortunate 58-year-old mom didn’t think she’d live to see her son get married, much less share a dance with him on his big day. Diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, Suzanne’s doctors gave her less than a year to live.

But thanks to a lifesaving clinical trial available at Ingalls, Suzanne has beaten the odds and continues to thrive.

For Suzanne, who has tried other treatments and failed, the immune checkpoint inhibitor at Ingalls is a godsend. Her cancer is under control, and she savors every moment she can with her children and grandchildren. An added benefit of the new treatment is very few side effects.

“I may be a little tired at times,” she explains. “But the everyday stuff is fine, and I still have my hair. Best of all, my cancer hasn’t spread. I take one day at a time, and I thank God I’m still here.”

Jan's Story

A decade ago, oncologists had little to offer patients with advanced bladder cancer, a disease that carries limited treatment options and a poor prognosis. But at Ingalls Cancer Care, patients like Jan Baltzell have been given new hope – and a new lease on life.

Cancer patient with care givers

Blood in the urine was the first sign something was wrong with the 72-year-old Moline resident. When he sought treatment at a hospital near his home, they told him he had a large, fast-growing tumor in his bladder. Other than surgery, there wasn’t anything they could do. A year later, the tumor invaded nearby lymph nodes in the spine, and doctors told him it was his “ticket to heaven.”

Unsatisfied and desperate for a solution, Jan sought treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas and the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. After those treatments were unsuccessful, and his bladder cancer began advancing and causing symptoms, his local oncologist discovered that Ingalls was participating in the breakthrough immunotherapy research study and referred him here.

A year later, Jan is experiencing few side effects; diagnostic imaging shows his cancer has retreated, and he’s feeling better than he has in months.

“I couldn’t even lift a gallon of milk,” Jan recalls. “I was helpless. Two days after my second treatment at Ingalls, I started feeling better. Yesterday, I spent 45 minutes in the gym, resistance band training. And I just got back from Clearwater (Fla.) visiting the grandchildren.”

Thanks to the clinical trial available at Ingalls, Jan, who’s been married to his wife Kathy for 50 years, says he looks forward to the next 50!

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