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Chemo Drug To Spur Immune System

Published: 2019-07-01 |

Source: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

More than 60 years ago, British physician Denis Parsons Burkitt and his associates achieved one of the signal successes in cancer medicine when they cured children in sub-Saharan Africa with a form of lymphoma by treating them with high doses of the chemotherapy drug cyclophosphamide. Now, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute researchers have shown that the traditional understanding of the drug's mode of action in incomplete.

In a paper in today's issue of the journal Cancer Discovery, the researchers demonstrate that large doses of cyclophosphamide not only kill cancer cells directly, as has been known, but also spur an immune system attach on the cells. The discovery resolves long-standing questions about how cyclophosphamide and other alkylating agents--among the oldest and most widely used types of chemotherapy--work, and suggests a novel way of sparking an immune system strike on certain cancers.

"Our results show that, at high doses, cyclophosphamide and other alkylating agent blur the line between chemotherapy and immunotherapy," said Dana-Farber's David Weinstock, MD, the senior author of the study. "These findings offer insights into how to switch on key immune system cells to augment existing therapies."

Cyclophosphamide was just the eighth anti-cancer drug to enter standard therapy when it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1954. It became a mainstay of cancer treatment after Burkitt and others used high doses to cure children with what's now know as Burkitt lymphoma---which had a 100% mortality rate at the time---sometimes with only one dose.

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