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Rocky Mountain Cancer Center on Leading Edge of Immunotherapy

It’s probably safe to say most of us either know someone who has experienced cancer, or perhaps we’ve experienced cancer ourselves. We’re most likely familiar with some of the more common treatment protocols, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. What we may not be familiar with is a new and emerging medical therapy to fight cancer, known as immunotherapy.

Dr. Timothy Murphy, a Colorado Springs MD specializing in oncology and hematology with the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center, says one type of immunotherapy involves a class of medications called immune checkpoint inhibitors, which “allows the body’s innate immune system to recognize the cancer within it as a foreign invader—much like recognizing a bacteria or virus—and thus, creating a natural immune response against cancer cells.”

This is a completely novel approach to fighting cancer, says Murphy, which makes it very exciting for oncologists and researchers alike. “Typically, chemotherapy works by disrupting the cellular machinery of cancer cells, but [the medications] also have this effect on the body’s normal cells, hence the side-effects.  Immune therapy allows the body’s own immune system to recognize the cancer and to eradicate it, producing side effects that are typically more tolerable than those of chemotherapy.”

Murphy says this class of medications is currently being tested on virtually all forms of cancer. “So far they seem to be very responsive to bladder cancers, lung cancers and melanoma.”

A typical patient for immune therapy, says Dr. Murphy, would be someone diagnosed with advanced or metastatic lung cancer. “This is a situation where surgery would no longer be indicated and the disease would have to be controlled medically. Rather than come to the cancer center and receive chemotherapy, the patient would come and receive an infusion of an immune checkpoint inhibitor. This would take about 30-60 minutes—chemotherapy can sometimes take 4-6 hours. There is no need to infuse many of the supportive-care medications that are used with chemotherapy, i.e. anti-nausea medications. This would be repeated every 2-4 weeks… Signs of success would be that the tumor or tumors shrink on subsequent CT scans. As long as the cancer is shrinking with therapy—or not progressing—and the patient is not having any severe side effects, the doctor would continue the infusions.”

Exciting news indeed. RMCC provides all manner of cancer therapies, says Murphy, and “is a founding member of the largest group of cancer researchers in the USA; US Oncology. This is a group of nearly 2,000 cancer specialists dedicated to providing cancer patients access to cutting-edge cancer research, evidence-based cancer care and value-based care in the community setting.”

In 2017, RMCC ranked highest in the nation for number of cancer patients admitted into clinical trials, with more than 1,900 patients enrolled. RMCC has played a pivotal role, says Murphy, in over 50 FDA-approved cancer therapies, nearly one-third of all cancer therapies approved in the U.S.