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Is Immunotherapy the Key to Fighting Ovarian Cancer?

September 26, 2018

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By Sara Bondell

Dana Young-Melnick was in the best shape of her life when doctors told her she had stage 4 ovarian cancer.

“I was 71 years old and never on any medication,” said Young-Melnick. “I was shocked. I was always exercising. I was tutoring, I was teaching, I was doing all sorts of things.”

Young-Melnick’s treatment consisted of chemotherapy and surgery and she was declared cancer-free.

But that didn’t mean her fight was over.

“Most patients with ovarian cancer will go into remission after their initial cancer treatment,” said Dr. Jeannie Chern, one of Moffitt’s gynecological oncologists. “The problem is that most of those patients will then have their cancer recur. Our goal is to prevent that recurrence or delay it to give the patient the longest disease-free interval.”

Dr. Jeannie Chern, gynecologic oncologist

That’s why Dr. Chern recommended Young-Melnick join a clinical trial for an immunotherapy vaccine called TapImmune. The vaccine boosts and directs the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells to help prevent the cancer from returning.

Oncologists are fairly limited in treatment options for ovarian cancer, which is the deadliest gynecological cancer. They believe immunotherapy could be the missing piece of the puzzle, but there is still a lot of work to do. 

“We know the immune system has a role in ovarian cancer, we just don’t know to what degree,” said Dr. Chern. “That is something we are still trying to understand.”

While immunotherapy treatments have had success in other disease types like lung cancer and melanoma, ovarian cancer trials aren’t seeing as high of response rates. Researchers are trying to raise those rates by combining immunotherapy with a standard treatment, like chemotherapy.

Genetic testing can also be a useful tool when it comes to treatment strategies. If you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, at some point you might benefit from treatment with targeted drugs.

Although ovarian cancer lags behind other types of cancer when it comes to immunotherapies, Dr. Chern says she is still hopeful for the future treatment of the disease. It’s the same hope that Young-Melnick says she continues to hold on to during her cancer journey.

“It’s the ones who have hope who survive,” she said.