It’s common for meaningful inventions to take years or even decades to reach their commercial potential. At about 110 years from discovery to practical use, immunotherapy is the second longest invention we’ve found after the Suez Canal.

Immunotherapy is the process of training the body’s natural immune system to attack and destroy cancer cells. The idea dates back to Dr. William Coley, in 1891. He noticed that some patients, after suffering infections, had cancer tumors disappear. Accordingly, Dr. Coley theorized there was a switch in the body that turned on to fight the tumors.

No sooner had Dr. Coley focused on immunotherapy than other physicians simultaneously fixated on radiation which became a more mainstream approach by burning tumors away. Next came chemotherapy, using drugs to eat away tumors. A small number of researchers continued studying immunotherapy but, at any rate, it fell out of favor in the mainstream.

Contrarily, immunotherapy did not gain traction for well over 100 years. However, as of 2018, genetically targeted immunotherapy drugs are among the most effective cancer fighters. Drs. Beutler and Hoffmann rediscovered and explained how the latent immune system can attack and destroy cancers, winning them the Nobel Prize in 2011.

Significantly, immunotherapy is early in development. It is suitable only for a small number of cancers. However, when it works immunotherapy tends to be much more effective than either radiation or chemotherapy. Patients report they can literally see tumors melting away.

Eventually, as genetic sequencing and manipulation progress immunotherapy is likely to eventually revolutionize oncology.