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Saudi Arabia to play a key role in the adoption of cancer immunotherapy

Cancer specialists in Saudi Arabia have developed a good track record in leveraging the power of immunotherapy to give hope to cancer patients in the Kingdom. As these immune system-stimulating drugs become more widely used, Saudi Arabia will be at the forefront of their adoption within the region, a leading expert has recently said. 

The immune system is a powerful weapon against disease, infections and defective cells. However, cancerous cells have a mechanism of evading recognition and immune attack. Immunotherapy encompasses a wide variety of treatment options that essentially boost the body’s natural defences and immune system to fight disease. These therapies hold great promise for treating aggressive and infiltrative cancers that traditionally were being treated with chemotherapy. 

In Saudi Arabia, cancer is highly prevalent and a leading cause of premature death; the WHO reported that there were 24,485 new cases of cancer in 2018 in the Kingdom. The most prevalent cancer types were breast, colorectal and thyroid cancers as well as leukaemia. 

“Across Saudi Arabia, oncologists are today using immunotherapy to facilitate and enhance cancer treatment to improve outcomes for patients within the Kingdom” said Dr. Ahmed Alshehri, Consultant Medical Oncologist at National Guard Health Affairs. “There is a high level of awareness and an overall positive attitude towards adopting modern cancer immunotherapy among oncologists in the Kingdom and the wider region. We see that patients are also more likely to be receptive to modern immunotherapy as a therapeutic option for cancer treatment compared with traditional methods such as chemotherapy”.  

Dr. Ahmed Alshehri

In the last few decades, immunotherapy has made great strides and become an important part of cancer therapy, leading to breakthrough treatments for difficult types of cancer. From the preventive vaccine for cervical cancer to the first ever proven treatment to extend the lives of patients with metastatic melanoma, immunotherapy has provided major treatment discoveries for a number of cancers. Immunotherapy is now showing a significant promise where other approaches failed to manage and treat brain tumors, bladder, breast, cervical and lung cancer to name a few.  

“If we look at how immunotherapy is changing the outlook for patients with lung cancer, many advanced-stage lung cancer patients are starting to see long-lasting remission and longer survival rates thanks to immunotherapy” said Dr Alshehri. “Newer types of immune treatments are now being studied, and they’ll impact how we treat cancer in the future. Recent clinical trials are encouraging and show that immunotherapy alone or in combination with conventional treatments can significantly improve patient outcomes”. 

“The initial major leap into the new era of this therapeutic modality was the Saudi Lung Cancer Management Guidelines of 2017. The success of targeted agents has allowed patients in the Kingdom to be treated with more affective drugs, enabling patients once diagnosed with cancer to have good quality of life. The major advantage of using cancer immunotherapy as opposed to traditional chemotherapy is the more favourable and tolerable toxicity profile” noted Dr Alshehri.  

“Furthermore, from my own clinical experience, immunotherapy has been actively incorporated in the management of other more vigorous cancer types including hepatocellular carcinoma, other gastrointestinal cancers, head and neck cancers, and soon will be used for triple-negative breast cancers. Clinical outcomes have proven to be very promising and are comparable to those reported in clinical trials, that found better outcomes when compared with standard treatment options” said Dr Alshehri.

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