REVIEW: The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer by Charles Graeber

In brief: The story of how cancer immunotherapy became a reality – and what could be next.

The good: I finally have a good understanding of how the immune system works.

The not-so-good: Sometimes the descriptions of the immune system could be a bit daunting if you don’t already know a bit about it.

Why I chose it: Cancer immunotherapy is exciting stuff.

Year: 2019

Pages: 302

Publisher: Scribe Publications

Rating: 10 out of 10

There are a lot of exciting advances in medicine, but surely none are as exciting and game changing as cancer immunotherapy. (Perhaps I am a little biased though having seen these treatments in action). Immunotherapy is not chemotherapy, but utilises new research breakthroughs to help allow the immune system to see cancer as something foreign and fight it. Unfortunately, it won’t help every cancer (some look more like foreign monsters to the immune system, others look like something normal) but immunotherapy and future breakthroughs in the field are going to be talked about for a long time. This book is timely because cancer therapy is no longer cut, burn and poison (surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy). As I’ve heard one person tell another, ‘I’m not on chemotherapy, I’m on immunotherapy‘. Soon they won’t even have to emphasise that word as immunotherapies are being used more and more in various cancers. It’s given life extending options to people with melanoma (a deadly form of skin cancer), kidney cancer and lung cancer. For some patients, questions have been more about if and when immunotherapy should be stopped rather than how long they are going to live. It is early days though and by no means is immunotherapy the cancer panacea for all cancers.

Charles Graeber mixes patient experiences with various cancers that have been changed by immunotherapy and detailing the history of immunotherapy from William Coley’s experiments with bacteria and sarcoma to the discovery of CTLA and PD-1/PD-L1. Like other ground-breaking research, cancer immunotherapy hasn’t always been the coolest kid on the block. Graeber explains in detail the many failures and tiny steps forward that occurred before the latest breakthrough. It makes for fascinating reading. He also explains how the immune system operates very well and simply. My knowledge on reading this book has become much more detailed and because of it, my interest in immunotherapy has skyrocketed. (Just ask anyone who has spoken to me recently– I’ve been talking about immunotherapy all week). If you don’t know anything about B cells and T cells, it might be worth a quick refresher via the internet before you jump in.

One of the problems with talking about a field that is moving forward in leaps and bounds is that further breakthroughs will occur during the writing. Most of the recent discussion in this book is about CTLA-4 and the drug that acts on it (ipilimumab). PD-1 and PD-L1 (nivolumab, pembrolizumab, durvalumab atezolizumab and avelumab) don’t get quite as much page time – maybe that should be the sequel?! CAR-T cells – or T cells engineered to target cancer cells also gets a nice summary too (important as this is going to be used more and more in Australia). But overall, this is a great book to whet your appetite for what’s happening in cancer therapies these days. It’s clearly written, has the human touch and explains the technology in a way the non-medical person can understand. Those in healthcare will find it just as interesting (plus there are many references to scientific papers to keep you very busy).

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer by Charles Graeber

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  1. I have heard of how amazing immunotherapy is. It is exciting when new things are found to help people with cancer.

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