For Dr. Tony Flippin, now is a great time to be a young physician, particularly when it comes to treating cancer patients. Flippin received the 2018 Healthcare Award presented by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce at a banquet on Thursday (Sept. 20) from the Blue Lion.
Following the presentation, he told Talk Business & Politics the reason for his optimism after 37 years of practice. Flippin said the “biggest advancement right now is immunotherapy,” adding it has “made a great difference in many cancers — lung cancer, melanoma.”
“It’s going to change the whole treatment of cancer. Because mostly, we use cytotoxic chemotherapy. It has many side effects on the patient. We make you lower your blood counts, we make you lose your hair. There is lots of nausea and vomiting. These new immunotherapies certainly have their side effects as well, but they’re much better tolerated and they can treat such a wide spectrum of diseases,” Flippin explained.
Flippin said he wished he was a younger physician today.
“This is an exciting time. This is equivalent to what happened when bacteria were being treated with chemotherapy. It’s going to make that big of a difference in cancer treatments. They’re using it more and more in everything. We use it in myeloma, leukemia, lymphomas.”
Part of what makes it so effective is in its targeted nature and how it forces the immune system to do the work rather than introducing outside chemicals. The immune system is made up of white blood cells plus the organs and tissues of the lymph system (example: bone marrow). Its main job is to help the body fight off disease and stay healthy. Immunotherapy drugs help the immune system work harder or they make it easier for it to find and eliminate cancer cells.
Examples of FDA-approved immunotherapy drugs by brand name are Tecentriq (for bladder cancer); Bavencio (metastatic Merkel cell carcinoma); Yervoy (metastatic melanoma); and Arzerra (refractory CLL). There are hundreds of clinical trials underway.
“Targeted therapy is a big deal. So when we target therapy to mutations in a gene, then we have a chance of killing the cancer without making the patient so sick,” Flippin explained, adding he wouldn’t say a cure for cancer was coming, but immunotherapy can dramatically increase lifespan. “Treatments are better, but ‘Cure’ is a big word. We cure about half the patients we see. But in my practice, it (immunotherapy) has made cancers go away that I could never impact before. It’s amazing.”
Just how much longer a patient can live with immunotherapy is hard to button down as it “depends on the stage of the cancer, where is the cancer localized, has it spread to the liver, and what organs are involved. They’re not all the same.”
Flippin has spent 27 of his 37 years as a hematologist/oncologist in Fort Smith. He works with the Hembree Regional Cancer Center in Mercy-Fort Smith. He works closely with M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute in Houston.