​Drummer Rikki Rockett Fights Oral Cancer

Poison drummer received immunotherapy through a clinical trial.

Rikki Rockett, drummer for the rock group Poison, was diagnosed with oral cancer in June 2015, when he saw his doctor for a sore throat. A small tumor was found at the base of his tongue. Like Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, actor Michael Douglas, and Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton, it is believed that the cause of the cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV).

According to Rolling Stone, a doctor told Rockett that he’d contracted a "hell of a cancer" but one that was "very treatable."

Rockett, 54, underwent nine rounds of chemotherapy and 35 sessions of radiation therapy, and although the treatment was initially successful, the tumor returned, and this time, his lymph nodes were involved as well.

Rockett enrolled in a clinical trial at the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. He has been undergoing a treatment including a "checkpoint inhibitor," a drug that removes a defense that cancer uses against the immune system.

In June 2016, Rockett was interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune about his experience with immunotherapy:

"For any of us that's ever gone through cancer, we know how scary it can be, and when you're going through a new type of treatment, that's even scarier.

"Immunotherapy is largely unknown to the public. We're hearing about it now more and more over time—articles in newspapers and magazines—but there wasn't a lot of information when I made the decision to actually do it, and I was very nervous."

"I've been one of the very lucky people that have responded very well to immunotherapy, and with any luck, I will be completely rid of cancer. My goal is to help people make the decision to try immunotherapy, because the side effects are so much less, and you feel so much better doing it, and you can get rid of your cancer without doing super-invasive stuff, in a lot of cases. So I'm a big proponent."

What is Cancer Immunotherapy?

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) the immune system’s natural capacity to detect and destroy abnormal cells may prevent the development of many cancers. However, cancer cells are sometimes able to avoid detection and destruction by the immune system. Cancer cells may:

  • reduce the expression of tumor antigens on their surface, making it harder for the immune system to detect them
  • express proteins on their surface that induce immune cell inactivation
  • induce cells in the surrounding environment (microenvironment) to release substances that suppress immune responses and promote tumor cell proliferation and survival.

In the past few years, the rapidly advancing field of cancer immunology has produced several new methods of treating cancer, called immunotherapies, which unharness the immune system against tumors. Immunotherapies either stimulate the activities of specific components of the immune system or counteract signals produced by cancer cells that suppress immune responses.

Immune Checkpoint Modulators

The NCI notes that one immunotherapy approach is to block the ability of certain proteins, called immune checkpoint proteins, to limit the strength and duration of immune responses. These proteins normally keep immune responses in check by preventing overly intense responses that might damage normal cells as well as abnormal cells. But, researchers have learned that tumors can commandeer these proteins and use them to suppress immune responses.

Blocking the activity of immune checkpoint proteins releases the "brakes" on the immune system, increasing its ability to destroy cancer cells. Several immune checkpoint inhibitors have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The first such drug to receive approval, ipilimumab (Yervoy), for the treatment of advanced melanoma, blocks the activity of a checkpoint protein known as CTLA4, which is expressed on the surface of activated immune cells called cytotoxic T lymphocytes. CTLA4 acts as a "switch" to inactivate these T cells, thereby reducing the strength of immune responses; ipilimumab binds to CTLA4 and prevents it from sending its inhibitory signal.

Two other FDA-approved checkpoint inhibitors, nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda), work in a similar way, but they target a different checkpoint protein on activated T cells known as PD-1. Nivolumab is approved to treat some patients with advanced melanoma or advanced lung cancer, and pembrolizumab is approved to treat some patients with advanced melanoma.

Source: National Cancer Institute

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