The line was a long one and we chatted with one another quietly as we stop stepped forward as the line progressed. We were wearing only our military issued boxer shorts, dog tags clinked like wind chimes occasionally, adding random punctuation to nothing in particular. Most of us were grinning and showing no fear, but we all took turns tossing furtive glances towards the front of the line where a couple of medics were using an air gun to give vaccination injections to us all in production line style. The concrete floor was cold, chilling my feet and I wondered if anyone else was as uncomfortable about everything as I was. I wasn’t frightened, but concerned might be the applicable word.
The guy in front of me took his turn and at the last moment, leaned away from the injector as the medic pulled the trigger. I felt tiny cool droplets spray on my bare chest, but I was more focused on the split that appeared on the guy’s bicep. They’d told us to lean into the gun and not shy away, the air pressure was high enough to tear skin and would cut us. The medic grunted something under his breath and took a second bead and succeeded this time. It was my turn, and when he held the gun to my arm I leaned into him hard enough to force him a step backwards. Choof! It was over and I honestly didn’t feel a thing. I was too busy looking at the guy in front of me, wiping the blood off his arm with a paper towel handed to him by one of the non-commissioned officers overseeing the operation. A sergeant pointed to me and then hooked his thumb over his shoulder telling me to move my ass to the next station, where I would be handed uniform pants. A new recruit to the Army, I’d just been vaccinated.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could fight off cancer the same way the military prepared us for the cooties of foreign service? Perhaps even at birth, be inoculated against a whole range of cancers at the same time as we get our other vaccines. It’s not an impossible idea, in fact, this kind of immunotherapy is headed for human trials right now. The target is Multiple Myeloma, and the idea is to use the body’s own immune system to mark cancer cells as the enemy, so that our body attacks them the same as it might any of the other diseases it learns to combat either by successive vaccinations or on its own through exposure.
Recently, researchers at the Dana Farber Institute in a presentation during the 53rd annual meeting of the American Hematology Society, announced that they were ready to try immunotherapy in human trials, using four different Multiple Myeloma cancer cell types. The idea is no different than it might be for measels or polio. If successful, it would be a major step forward towards reducing the presentation of Multiple Myeloma, whacking the statistics down like a clipper in tall grass. At this point though, there are no guarantees and no one is advocating this as a method of eradicating the cancer. But it could provide a leap forward in slowing the advance of the cancer’s progression and perhaps even maintain it in a ‘smouldering state’ for some. Any step forward is a welcome one.
As it is, chemotherapy is really the only tool in controlling Multiple Myeloma, and success is spotty at best. If an immunotherapy can be incorporated into a therapeutic regimen, the overall efficacy of treatment can be improved. At this point any projection is pie in the sky, but simple logic dictates that success will add the newest tool in the anti-Myeloma arsenal in quite some time. At the present, Thalidomide and its analogs are the only immunotherapy agents in the anti-Myeloma toolbox, and no one is sure exactly how they work. It’s only known that it slows the progression of Multiple Myeloma in some patients. When combined with anti-protein compounds, even better results occur in about a third of the recipients suffering standard Multiple Myeloma.
There is no cure for Multiple Myeloma, except in the dreams of some researchers. But a true auto-immunotherapy could be a great step forward in lengthening the lives of Multiple Myeloma patients. We’ll just have to keep an eye on developments to see if the trials bear any fruit.