Immune boost to kill cancer cells
IT is not called the "Emperor of Maladies" for nothing. There is no disease that strikes so much fear as cancer does, largely because of the agonising side effects that patients have to endure with every dose of chemotherapy, radiotherapy or anti-cancer vaccines.
As the second leading cause of death in the world, next to heart attacks, cancer does not discriminate and strikes individuals of all ages and across all societies.
Everyday, as thousands of cell divisions take place in our body, a few of these divisions produce mutated cells, leading to the birth of cancer cells.
A strong immune system will be able to immediately tackle the problem through a complex network of cells and organs, with lymph nodes that work together to defend the body against "foreign" or "non-self" cells, including cancer cells.
However, when the immune system's efficacy is overwhelmed by the abundance of cancer cell formation, or when the immune system is compromised, cancer could then evolve as a disease and start growing.
Armed with this knowledge, researchers have successfully revolutionised the treatment of cancer with the introduction of immunotherapy, which directly boosts the immune system using the patient's own cells.
The treatment involves harvesting immune cells directly from the patient, multiplying them in the lab and injecting them back into the patient to enable the cells to directly destroy the cancer cells. Activated immune cells have the ability to recognise cancer cells and kill it.
Touted as a "less painful, less traumatic and less toxic" way of treating cancer, the Autologous Immune Enhancement Therapy (AIET) is now available in Malaysia.
It is provided by Nichi-Asia Life Science Sdn Bhd (NiSCELL), a Malaysian biotechnology company working with GN Corporation of Japan, the Biotherapy Institute of Japan and Nichi-In Centre for Regenerative Medicine in India.
"This means that patients here can now use their own body cells to fight cancer, minus the use of chemical agents, radiation or debilitating surgery. However, if necessary, immunotherapy can be combined with other established forms of treatment," said NiSCELL chairman Datuk Dr Ridzwan Bakar at the company's inauguration recently.
He said the advantage of AIET was that it was safe and had less chance of rejection as the patient's own cells were used, instead of donor cells.
Dr Ridzwan said NiSCELL had been conducting clinical trials at a few cancer centres in the country since 2009 and the results were promising.
"In some of the patients, the tumour has either shrunk or disappeared," he said, adding that most of these patients had previously tried other therapies with little success.
NiSCELL, which has a facility in Kota Damansara, Kuala Lumpur, is believed to be the first in the region to provide the treatment.
It also provides AIET for various diseases, including heart disease and spinal cord injuries. It is also licensed as a private blood bank by the Health Ministry.
AIET has been used by the Biotherapy Institute of Japan since 2000 and more than 10,000 cancer patients have been treated to date, with no adverse reactions reported.
One large study in Japan involving 1,400 patients had shown that when combined with conventional treatment, the efficacy of AIET improved by between 20 and 30 per cent.
Compared with treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, AIET is relatively cheaper, costing about RM15,000 per treatment.
Depending on the severity and type of cancer, a patient may need to undergo four to five treatments.
According to NiSCELL, AIET is applicable for most cancers and good results have been reported for advanced pancreatic tumours, lymphoma, kidney, skin, breast, ovarian, liver, lung, colon, esophagus cancers and certain types of leukaemia.
AIET, however, is not suitable for patients with autoimmune diseases.
The National Cancer Registry reported that 21,773 cancer cases were diagnosed in Peninsular Malaysia in 2006.
The five most common cancers were breast, colorectal, lung, cervix and nasopharynx.