UAE could play key role in advancing cancer immunotherapy

Differences in diet affect immune responses in cancer patients, and UAE can contribute to the study of these responses, says expert

Abu Dhabi: Across the world, cancer specialists are today using immunotherapy to facilitate and enhance cancer treatment. As these immune system-stimulating drugs become more widely used, the UAE could play a key role in helping determine how dietary differences could be used to fine-tune the therapy, a top expert has said.

This is mainly because differences in diet affect the way the human body mounts its immune responses, and patients in the UAE have a very different diet compared to patients in Western countries, Dr Miriam Merad, director of precision immunology at the New York-based Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Gulf News.

“At present, there is massive investment into the field, and I believe that within the next decade or so, every patient afflicted by cancer will be treated with medicines that heighten their immune responses, in conjunction with traditional medicine if required. But there is still very little data on the efficacy of these new drugs developed in the West with patients who follow a different diet, especially as the immune system is greatly shaped by our diet and the microbes that therefore live in our intestines,” Dr Merad said.

“This is why it would benefit cancer medicine to also study how the newest immunotherapies work with patients here in the UAE and the wider region,” she added.

Dr Merad was speaking following a talk she delivered at the New York University Abu Dhabi, where she discussed the latest advances in cancer immunotherapy.

According to her, the goal of employing more immune system-empowering drugs is to make cancers less deadly, and perhaps even allow for cancer lesions to be controlled entirely by the patient’s own immune system by making them chronic instead of fatal.

“The idea is to use molecules known as checkpoint inhibitors, which prevent cancer cells from shutting down the immune response launched by the patient’s own body. This is known as checkpoint blockade. And because most tumours do launch some sort of immune response, I expect that more and more immunotherapy drugs will become approved over the next few years,” Dr Merad explained.

Compared to traditional forms of cancer medicine like chemotherapy and radiotherapy, immunotherapy produces much fewer side effects. In addition, it can be targeted to attack only cancer cells, without damaging other healthy tissue as often happens with chemotherapy.

Cancer is known to be the third leading cause of death in the UAE, and a leading cause of premature death along with cardiovascular disease. The most prevalent deadly cancers are cancers of the lungs, breasts, and colon and rectum.

So far, immunotherapy has proven to be effective against treating head, neck and cervical cancer caused by the human papilloma virus, as well as in treating melanomas (skin cancers) and lung cancer.

“In fact, checkpoint blockade therapies are especially useful in treating lung cancers because smokers have mutations on tumour cells. These mutations are easily detected by checkpoint inhibitors and an immune response is launched,” Dr Merad said.

She also hopes that checkpoint blockade could be used to control liver cancer, for which there is currently no treatment.

Checkpoint blockade therapies were first approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 2011, but other immunotherapies like vaccines have long been in use.

“With that being said, these checkpoint blockade therapies are likely to become the biggest blockbuster drugs in the history of medicine,” Dr Merad said.

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