Yesterday, the FDA approved a drug called Provenge. It trains the body's immune system to fight off advanced prostate cancer. It's also the first proof we have that immunotherapy works in the fight against the disease.
Provenge from Dendreon isn't a preventative vaccine; it won't stave off illness. It is, though, an innovative way to apply traditional vaccine technology to post-diagnosis treatment. It's an approach with far fewer harsh side-effects than chemotherapy, and in clinical trials it extended the lives of patients by about four months compared to a placebo group.
There are some unfortunate limitations: Provenge has been approved only for a specific subset of "men whose cancer has spread in the body and for whom the hormone-deprivation drugs no longer work but who still have minimal symptoms, or none at all." Dendreon's also only been able to produce enough vaccine for 2,000 patients this year, and those who can get Provenge will have to pay out $93,000 for a full three-shot course of treatment.
What's most important, though, are the broader implications: We know, now, that immunotherapy can work in cancer treatment. It's only a matter of time before its scope and effectiveness have as broad a reach as the disease itself. [NY Times]