PEORIA — Earlier this month, when the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to a pair of immunotherapy researchers, it was just one of many exciting developments in a field producing a lot of intriguing news these days, said CancerCare oncologist Dr. Gregory Gerstner.

“In the past five years there’s been a big explosion in immunotherapy,” he said. “It seems like just about every other week we get a new FDA indication.”

The FDA has approved multiple immunotherapy treatments whose benefits are still being tested. One drug initially shown to work on one type of cancer is also found to help with another type and level of disease. Many formerly gloomy diagnoses are becoming more hopeful — melanoma, lung cancer and bladder cancer, to name a few.

“We’re seeing improvements in all of these and it’s been really exciting,” said Gerstner.

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps the patient’s immune system fight cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Cancer cells typically thrive because they are able to hide from the immune system. Some immunotherapies mark the cancer cells to make it easier for the immune system to find them, while other immunotherapies boost the patient’s immune system so it works better against the cancer.

In terms of side effects, immunotherapy is a great improvement over chemotherapy and radiation.

“Immunotherapy doesn’t cause the same problems, with nausea and hair loss, but it can cause problems with autoimmune disorders,” said Gerstner. “But only about 5 percent of patients have reactions severe enough to stop treatment, while 15 to 20 percent of chemotherapy patients have to stop treatment because of side-effects.”

Cancer treatment is becoming less arduous for patients. As a second generation oncologist, Gerstner frequently talks to his father about how things have changed.

“My dad started his practice about 40 years ago. All they had was radiation and chemotherapy, and they were frequently admitting people to the hospital with bad side effects,” he said. “Today oncology has transitioned to an outpatient treatment. And it’s more tailored. We are trying to figure out what is the best treatment for each patient.”

While surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are still used, they are often used in combination with immunotherapy. Another new tool in the oncologist’s arsenal is targeted treatment, which focuses on the changes in cancer cells which help them grow, divide and spread, according to the National Cancer Institute. Researchers are learning more every day about the cell changes which drive cancer so they can better design therapies to target those changes or block their effects.

Cancer will probably never be eradicated, said James Allison of the United States and Tasuku Honjo of Japan, the immunotherapy researchers who won the Nobel Prize. But promising new treatments are already increasing the lifespan of patients.

“The major excitement with these immunotherapies is that there are clearly subgroups of people that seem to have a durable remission,” said Gerstner. “After we get a little more time under our belt, we will know how long.”

Continued research is key to furthering advances in cancer treatment, said Gerstner.

“All of the progress we make is because of the trials we do today,” he said. “We wouldn’t be where we are without that. That’s why funding is so important.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or Follow her on, and subscribe to her on