PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Picture a boxer working with a sparring partner, practicing moves with fists and feet for days or months, before getting into the ring for the big matchup.

An international clinical trial of the combination of immunotherapy – the sparring partner who can make a patient’s immune system get stronger, and potentially fight cancers – and chemotherapy has started to show positive results for treating what’s known as “triple-negative breast cancer.” It means immunotherapy is likely to have a larger role in oncology (the treatment of tumors), according to Dr. Don Dizon, the director of women’s cancers at Lifespan Cancer Institute.

Nine hundred women with metastatic triple-negative breast cancer were enrolled in the international study, published Oct. 22 in the New England Journal of Medicine. It’s a sub-type of breast cancer that makes up 10-20 percent of cases and is known to be more aggressive in attacking the patient.

Some of the women were randomly assigned to receive both immunotherapy and chemotherapy, or solely chemotherapy. The combination of both improved survival length.

“The bottom line: higher response rates, higher progression-free survival, which means a longer time before the cancer starts to grow,” Dr. Dizon said. “And more importantly, we saw the first signal that we could improve overall survival in this group of women.”

Some tumors haven’t seen the beneficial response, so immunotherapy may not be for everyone.

It’s also being used in other areas: “What they do is either release the gates that check our immune system from recognizing cancer within our bodies and sort of frees it up, to not only recognize cancer, but kill it,” he said. Doctors haven’t been able to do that with chemotherapy, “and oftentimes the side effect profile is very different from what we see with chemo.”

It’s proof positive, according to Dr. Dizon, that investing and participating in clinical trials is important, and saves lives.