October is a big month for cancer. This is the month that we talk about, raise money for, raise awareness about and all change into pink for breast cancer. Breast cancer is the number one type of cancer that kills women after lung cancer. But, there are so many gynecological cancers that aren’t talked about that affect women. Cancer’s that happen below the belt. Cancer’s that aren’t as easily detected. Cancer’s that affect about 80,000 women a year and result in about 25,000 deaths a year. We have already talked some about uterine cancer and Peach Outreach, and the good works they are doing in raising awareness and funds for research in this field for a cure, and we were lucky when we got to speak with Dr. Amir Jazaeri, Associate Professor of the Gynecologic Cancer Immunotherapeutics Program at M.D. Anderson, about immunotherapy and what this means for not just gynecological cancers, but potentially all cancers.
The idea of immunotherapy has actually been around for about 100 years, and the science of Immunotherapy is very simple. The immune system is set up to not only recognize all types of viruses, but to attack those viruses and get rid of them. So, what if our immune systems can attack the cancer virus? After all, cancer cells are like a virus. The immune system can recognize those cancer cells in your body and then get rid of them, just like a virus. Genius, right? Of course, nothing is ever that easy.
Dr. Jim Allison, one of the first Doctor’s to work with immunotherapy, realized that when the immune system was activated with cancer cells, the immune system put on the brakes and stopped working, so he found a way to prevent the immune system from braking when the cancer cells were present by making antibodies to unleash the immune system, so the immune system would attack the cancer cells.
Dr. Allison used this technique in Melanoma patients and saw a 25% increase in survival rate. The drugs are called check point inhibitors. They do have side affects, but they are different than chemo side affects. For instance, because your immune system is unleashed, you can have other issues from immunotherapy. The immune cells can attack other tissues like the lungs, intestines or thyroids because it can’t tell what is a cancer cell and what is a healthy cell all the time. This is why immunotherapy is still in trial phases for certain types of cancer treatments.
The main question that is being tackled now, is how do you get the immune system to only attack the cancer cells? And, the research is just at the tip of the iceberg. Although no one will ever fully understand how cancer develops, we are starting to understand how the immune system can match the complexity of the cancer cell and can one day possibly be the cure.
Dr. Amir Jazaeri
At the forefront of the immunotherapy clinical trials at M.D. Anderson for below the belt cancers is Dr. Amir Jazaeri. We fell in love with him. He is warm, patient, caring, passionate, smart, funny and humble and we are so grateful that he took time out of his busy schedule to visit with us and talk to us in layman terms so we could understand what he does! Dr. Jazeaeri, or Dr. Jaz, is an immigrant from Iran. His parents moved to the United States when he was 12 years old. It was after the war and his parents were concerned that their children would be recruited as a martyr. At that time, kids as young as 15 were being forced to go into the religious wars as martyrs, and Dr. Jaz’s parents did not want that for Dr Jaz or his younger brother. Dr. Jaz’s father was an OGBYN in Iran and through the black market he slowly and methodically sold all his assets and sent money to the United States in preparation for his move.
Dr. Jaz and his family left Iran under the pretense of going on a European vacation to Italy and never returned to Iran. They stayed in Italy for three months while his parents filed for asylum with the US Government. When they moved to the United States, they settled in the Washington D.C. area, and Dr. Jazaeri knew some English from his education in Iran, but his parents had never been to the United States, and his father had to start his life over as a surgical assistant and his mother as a substitute teacher.
Dr. Jazaeri always knew he wanted to be a doctor. He loved science and how things worked and nature. For as long as he could remember, he had always worked in labs and loved the investigation and the figuring out the why. But, he also loves the patient said of medicine. It is because of his patients that he feels he must continue pushing forward with research to find a cure for cancer that is down under. When he sees the courage and resilience of his patients and the way they battle through their cancers it is inspiring to him. That has been the attraction to him for Gynecological Oncology, or cancer below the belt. He also loves that because cancer below the belt docs are one of the few docs that are trained in surgery and chemo, his relationship with his patients is long term, so he sees them through every stage of the process of the disease.
Immunotherapy Hitting Cancer Below The Belt
Dr. Amir Jazaeri was brought back to M. D. Anderson 15 months ago to run the Gynecological Cancer Immunotherapeutics Program and he has been busy at work dissecting tumors and testing them in rats using immunotherapy. He is now ready to start his first trial with ovarian cancer and they are busy in the lab hoping to get a trial going soon for uterine cancer.
Although Dr. Jaz there is always some apprehension with a new trial, the potential benefit is too great to be missed. The idea is to maximize the benefit and minimize the risk for the patients. This is a once in a generation therapy and the first trial is all about finding the right dose so that more research and development can be done for the next generation of treatments.
We asked Dr. Jaz the best way to prevent some below the belt cancers.
Parents get involved in vaccination campaigns. Learn about the benefits of HPV to reduce the resk of cervical cancer and throat cancer. Vaccinating boys and girls reduces cervical cancer and genital warts.
What does Dr. Jaz have to say about immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy is a significant scientific advancement in our lifetime that may cure cancers that were incurable. We are still in the very early days of our research and in using immunotherapy, but this could one day be the cure.