By Louis M. Weiner, MD, Health Guides CNN
Louis M. Weiner, MD, is a board-certified oncologist and director of Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. In our “Meet the Specialist” series, we highlight the unique perspectives of various medical specialists on the types of patients they see and what they find rewarding and challenging in their daily practice.
An immuno-oncologist is a doctor who specializes in utilizing therapies that harnesses the power of the immune system to treat cancer. As an immuno-oncologist, I primarily treat cancer patients with treatments called immunotherapies. It’s a very different solution than the more traditional treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
The goal of traditional cancer treatments is to kill cancer cells, either by removing them from the body (surgery), providing a lethal dose of radiation (radiation therapy), or destroying how cancer cells grow and spread (chemotherapy). Immunotherapy is different—this type of treatment helps the cancer patient’s own immune system eliminate the cancer. Cancer cells have unique properties that protect them from the immune system. But immunotherapies break down those barriers so a patient’s immune system can find and fight cancer cells, just like it would find and fight a virus or infection.
Currently, immunotherapies have proven to work well in many cancers, including non-small cell lung cancer. Patients with this type of cancer, especially those whose cancer has advanced, are seeing great results with immunotherapy—it doesn’t work for all patients, but when it does work, the results are incredible. It’s an exciting time to be involved in this field, especially because historically, researchers didn’t think immunotherapy would have an impact on lung cancer. Now, for many lung cancer patients, immunotherapy has shown to be more effective than chemotherapy. And immunotherapy is successfully treating patients who tried all other treatments for their lung cancer but needed another option. In the past, they wouldn’t have had anywhere else to turn, so it’s very rewarding to be able to give them another step to take.
When I first heard of immuno-oncology, my imagination was seized by the idea that the body’s immune system could be a tool to fight cancer. As I was interviewing to train in medical oncology, someone described the newfangled concept of an early type of immunotherapy. He talked about what these therapies were capable of doing and I was immediately intrigued. The more I trained and learned, the more passionate I became, and I knew I wanted to spend my life focusing on immuno-oncology. That was 33 years ago, and I’ve been very fortunate to watch this field grow since then so we can offer more hope to cancer patients.
As an immuno-oncologist, I treat patients often, but I’m also the director of a comprehensive cancer center, designated as such by the National Cancer Insitute in acknowledgement of its capacity for cutting-edge research and ability to involve many different specialties in patient care. I’m responsible for overseeing research operations and the general direction of the cancer center, and I also direct the clinical cancer center at our partner hospital. I’m quite busy, but I always make time to see patients—I worked very hard to become a good doctor, and I want to continue providing patients new immunotherapies that bring them better outcomes and longer lives.
It’s an amazing time to be involved in immuno-oncology—as of now, we’ve seen immunotherapy medications benefit patients with 25 different cancers, and we’re researching many more. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several immunotherapies in recent years to treat these cancers, and more are coming down the pipeline. The hardest part of my job is talking to patients who are dealing with the stress of their diagnosis, which is, in their minds, a death sentence. But thanks to new cancer treatments like immunotherapy, it doesn’t have to be that way. Today, two out of every three people with cancer can expect to be cured—it’s incredible. And that’s the most rewarding part of my job; there’s no greater feeling than to walk into a room and have the privilege of telling someone that their life is no longer in danger. Helping relieve my patients of that burden is why I became a doctor.