The immune system is a precise, complex system that helps our bodies maintain a relative state of health. It helps fight off infectious diseases (such as viruses and bacteria) and even has mechanisms in place to stop cancer from forming.
Unfortunately, cancer often gets through the immune system’s defenses. Still, researchers are always looking for new ways to use the immune system in new and improved ways. One specific cancer treatment that uses the immune system are dendritic cell vaccines.
What role does the immune system play in fighting cancer?
Generally speaking, the immune system is designed to fight off anything that isn’t normal or is out of place. Foriegn invaders such as viruses or bacteria (called antigens) enter the body all the time. The immune system works to identify these risks and deploy the correct response to ensure the threat is neutralized.
When it comes to cancer, the immune system has ways of looking for clues that indicate a tumor may be forming or that cells may be turning cancerous. It does this by looking for tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, a type of immune system cell designed to fight cancer cells. A buildup of these cells in a given location could signal that a cancer cell is forming.
However, cancer cells have developed ways to evade the immune system, leading to a need for new therapies. The immune system is looking for very specific genetic markers that indicate something is cancerous. Because cancer cells hijack some of the machinery used to develop and maintain cells, however, genetic changes can occur in these cells. When this happens, it can “hide” a cancer cell from the immune system.
What are dendritic cells?
Dendritic cells are part of your immune system and play an important role. Specifically, dendritic cells are a type of cell called antigen-presenting cells (APCs). Basically, these cells can collect various antigens and present them to other cells, like T-cells, to activate an effective immune system response.
What is a dendritic cell vaccine?
The idea of a cancer vaccine is not new; vaccines designed to prevent the human papillomavirus (HPV) have had some success in preventing certain kinds of cervical cancer.
Like other vaccines, the theory behind a dendritic cell vaccine is that it would present antigens specific to a cancer cell to the immune system, allowing it to mount a specific response to these antigens and, in turn, attack cancer cells. In a sense, it would make a cancer that may be “invisible” to your immune system visible again.
To make a dendritic cell vaccine, researchers need to take dendritic cells from your body and “load” them full of the antigens for your specific tumor. Upon returning to your body, the dendritic cells would present the cancer antigens and allow T cells and other parts of your immune system to go on the offensive.
Dendritic cell vaccines have been studied and used for at least 30 years, so there is a large amount of data available about how they work and their safety.
It’s important to know that dendritic cell vaccines do not work like a typical vaccine. They do not prevent cancer. They just use the idea behind vaccines in an attempt to treat cancer.
What’s the benefit of a dendritic cell vaccine?
One benefit is that they could be personalized to you and your tumor. That’s because your own dendritic cells and information about your cancer are used to create the vaccine. Your cells are no longer looking blindly for cancer cells; they know exactly what kind of cancer you have and where to spot the cancerous cells.
What are the limitations of a dendritic cell vaccine?
Despite the promise of a treatment vaccine, dendritic cell vaccines do have some limitations. For example, some research also suggests that dendritic cell vaccines have shown little benefit for people with advanced stage cancer. However, these vaccines have demonstrated a good deal of effectiveness for treating early-stage cancers.
Researchers have noted that these vaccines sometimes have an underwhelming response, and research is ongoing to find new and improved ways to build these vaccines.
Is a dendritic cell vaccine right for me?
The only way to know for sure is to talk to your doctor, who will discuss all possible treatment options. Your doctor will be able to help you decide whether a dendritic cell vaccine is the right approach.