The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer

By Clayville, Kristel | The Christian Century, April 24, 2019 | Go to article overview

The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer


Clayville, Kristel, The Christian Century


The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer

By Charles Graeber

Twelve, 320 pp., $28.00

Climate science is not the only science where believe has become an important verb in public debates about the data. As a chaplain for a transplant team, I often heard medical professionals utter the phrase "believe in transplant," as if the science of replacing human organs required belief in order to work. The funny thing is, belief just might be required--not to make the science work but to get the research off the ground.

Charles Graeber picks up on this observation in his book on the history of immunotherapy. As he describes the interwoven drama of patients, cancer researchers, immunologists, pharmaceutical companies, and the Food and Drug Administration, he finds that belief is the dominant reason immunotherapy treatments for cancer have begun to hit the market. But any well-told story of belief contains its opposite as well, and Graeber also shows how much of the struggle to bring immunotherapy to cancer treatment has been due to disbelief that gained the authority of scientific fact.

Graeber's story of belief in medical research begins with one of the orienting questions of cancer research: Why doesn't the immune system fight cancer? To give this question context, Graeber gives us a brief history of the research on the immune system. The attempt to understand the immune system was organized around what can only be called a philosophical inquiry: Where do we end and where does the cancer begin? Rather than looking for specific physical borders between "cancer" and "us," the question is more about recognition. One theory is that the immune system doesn't fight cancer because it can't distinguish it from the rest of us. We and our cancers are too similar to trigger an immune system response.

But of course, the immune system can learn. That is the theory (now proven) behind vaccinations. The immune system can learn to recognize viruses and can then fight them off. But can the immune system learn to recognize cancer cells as "not us"? The believers whose stories form the through line of Graeber's narrative think it can. The naysayers think it can't.

The naysayers have evidence on their side, and it was peer reviewed. An influential 1975 article on immunotherapy and cancer showed that in mice the immune system did not recognize cancer.

The believers had evidence too, but it was in the form of anecdotes, and mostly with human patients. These anecdotes included patients getting better and fighting off cancer once their immune systems were trained to recognize it. Such stories included tumors melting away, a decrease in tumors in an area, and what seemed like spontaneous remissions. …

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