Immunotherapy approved for triple-negative breast cancer

BOSTON — It’s being called a game-changer when it comes to fighting a specific kind of breast cancer, and it was just approved by the FDA and is being offered right here in Boston: Immunotherapy.

It utilizes the body’s own immune system to help fight cancer.

It was just 10 days before Nilsu Larkin turned 30 years old that she discovered a lump in her breast during a self-examination.

The medical device company quality engineer was then diagnosed with early-stage triple-negative breast cancer.

“It has been a crazy time period for us. I mean our whole world changed with just one phone call,” said Larkin.

After difficult conversations with her husband and her doctors at the Dana Farber Brigham Cancer Center and at UMass Memorial Cancer Center, they decided immunotherapy was Larkin’s best shot at beating cancer. Dr. Elizabeth Mittendorf performed the surgery. She explained to Boston 25 News how immunotherapy works:

“Cancer is smart. And cancer comes up with ways to hide from the immune system,” explained Dr. Mittendorf.  “So immunotherapy is one strategy to try to reverse that. It works by making the T-Cells more robust. So what normally happens is your immune system responds. But then it kind of peters out. And that’s probably a good thing in most situations because you don’t want your immune system out of control causing eventually Autoimmunity. But when your immune response is against your Cancer, you want it to keep going. So immunotherapy allows that to happen: it keeps that immune system strong, robust, and fighting against cancer.”

In July, the FDA approved immunotherapy in combination with chemotherapy, for routine use in the preoperative setting for women diagnosed with early-stage triple-negative breast cancer.

With manageable side effects, Larkin was able to continue working while being treated.

“So immunotherapy treatments are through an IV drip. Maybe the day I get the treatment, there’s a little bit of fatigue, but that’s about it. Chemo was a lot more difficult. I lost my hair and there was a lot of nausea, fatigue, just - it is pretty horrible,” said Larkin.

Larkin underwent six months of immunotherapy and chemotherapy and initially got the combination every three weeks. After radiation and surgery, she was able to get immunotherapy and chemo every six weeks.

Larkin’s surgery then went very well and Dr. Mittendorf was able to remove all of the remaining cancer.

Larkin has now completed her treatments and says she can now see a future, and she and her husband are even looking to start a family.

“I can finally start just thinking about the rest of my life and planning for things ahead, instead of worrying about it,” she said.

Dr. Mittendorf says the hope is immunotherapy will someday soon be used to treat other kinds of cancers and also autoimmune diseases, as we learn how to manipulate the immune system to be more aggressive against infection and disease and how to keep it in check for patients with autoimmune disease.


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