Iowa doctors use immunotherapy in colon cancer trial

IOWA CITY — Colorectal cancer is second only to lung cancer in the number of lives it will take in Iowa this year. Now, doctors at the University of Iowa are studying ways to not only save lives, but reduce the number of colon cancer surgeries for patients.

Currently, colon cancer patients typically have to undergo surgery to have part of their colon removed or resected. Now, University of Iowa researchers are using immunotherapy to reduce surgeries and improve survival rates. If a patient’s tumor biopsy has a certain genetic marker or mutation, they can receive targeted therapy instead of undergoing surgery.

Dr. Saima Sharif, Oncologist at the University of Iowa Holden Cancer Center, is directing a new treatment trial and said the number of people with the genetic mutation could be as high as 20%.

“So one in five patients who are getting their colonoscopy is a significant amount of patients,” Sharif pointed out. “If we look in Iowa, we are expecting to have about 1,600 new cases diagnosed in 2023.”

If doctors can detect the tumors early and treat them, they can reduce the number of people who need surgeries and, potentially, the number of deaths. Researchers began accepting patient applications for the clinical trial recently.

Cancer tricks the body’s natural immune system into thinking abnormal cancer cells are normal, so the body will not attack them, allowing the cancer to grow. Immunotherapy turns the tables on cancer and uses the body’s own cells and other drugs to attack it. Sharif noted immunotherapy makes the cancer fighting cells unrecognizable, which is what makes it successful.

“So what immunotherapy drugs do is it helps release the brakes off of the patient’s immune system that the cancer has placed,” Sharif outlined. “Preventing it to recognize cancer as abnormal, and this unleashes the patient’s own immune system against the cancer to fight the cancer cells and kill them.”

The trial will start with 25 patients. Sharif added they will grow the study depending on how many patients’ tumors respond well to the treatment.