New immunotherapy treatments are offering hope for people who have advanced or difficult-to-treat breast cancer. Research has suggested that these new approaches have the potential to extend the lives of people with breast cancer — or, in some cases, lead to complete breast cancer remission.

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What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy uses materials from living organisms to help the body’s immune system recognize, control and eliminate cancer. There are several types of immunotherapy that are used to treat breast cancer. Some help the immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells. Others boost immune system activity and response. Immunotherapy treatments can be combined with other treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Immunotherapy for Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Triple-negative breast cancer is an aggressive, difficult-to-treat form of breast cancer that often affects younger women in their 40s and 50s. Standard chemotherapy treatments often are not effective for these patients.

A study conducted by researchers at Queen Mary University of London and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in the United Kingdom found that combining traditional chemotherapy treatment with an immunotherapy medication called atezolizumab extended the lives of patients with triple-negative breast cancer by up to 10 months. The study also showed a 40 percent reduction in the risk of death or the risk of the cancer progressing when the combination treatment was used.

According to researchers, the combination treatment is effective because the chemotherapy eats away at the tumor’s immune-protective outer layer. This makes it easier for the body’s immune system to recognize and fight the tumor with the support of the immunotherapy medication.

Immunotherapy for Advanced Metastatic Breast Cancer

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) published research showing how tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) were used to eliminate tumors in a woman with advanced metastatic breast cancer. When breast cancer cells spread to other parts of the body, or metastasize, the cancer can be difficult or impossible to eliminate using traditional treatments.

In the NCI study, TILs — which occur naturally and in small amounts in 80 percent of epithelial cell tumors — were isolated and taken from the patient’s tumor. Researchers grew a large number of TILs outside the patient’s body and injected them back into the patient. Before the TIL injection, the patient was treated with an agent to prevent the patient’s immune system from interfering with the TIL injection.

Although previous hormone therapy and chemotherapy treatments were ineffective, TIL treatment caused the patient’s tumors to disappear completely. According to the published research, the patient has been in remission for 22 months. Researchers have also had success treating metastatic colorectal, bile duct and cervical cancers using TILs.

The Future of Immunotherapy

Additional studies and ongoing patient monitoring are needed to support these exciting preliminary results. However, immunotherapy shows much promise in the field of breast cancer care. Immunotherapy also has other benefits such as lower toxicity and fewer side effects. Because immunotherapy teaches your immune system how to recognize and destroy cancer cells, it may even reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.

As these studies show, researchers are finding novel immunotherapy treatments that harness the cancer-fighting power of the body’s immune system. As this field continues to expand, patients with breast cancer will have access to more treatments that provide improved outcomes for advanced of difficult-to-treat cancers.

Learn more about the Breast Care Center at

Featuring Kit Lu, MD

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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