Many cancer treatments put toxic or synthetic chemicals or substances into your body, which can have a range of side effects. But what if there was a way to use cells from your own body to fight cancer and make your own immune system a cancer fighting machine?
Entere immunotherapy, one of the more promising developments in cancer treatment. Keep reading to learn more about the immune system and how it can be used to fight cancer.
How does the immune system fight cancer?
The immune system is designed to respond to a myriad of threats to our health, and that includes cancer. Specifically, the immune system has ways of finding and destroying any cell that appears “abnormal” to prevent the spread of cancerous cells.
The presence of specific immune system cells (called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes) may signal that there is a tumor present the body is trying to address.
However, cancer is notorious for evading the immune system; genetic changes, for example, are just one way cancer cells can become invisible to the immune system. As a result, our natural defenses are left without a way to fight cancer.
How does immunotherapy help?
Immunotherapy is designed to give your immune system a hand in finding and destroying cancer cells. There are several types of immunotherapy, though here are a few examples:
Immune checkpoint inhibitors.
The immune system has several mechanisms that stop the immune system from overreacting. Removing these inhibitors could allow the immune system to more strongly attack cancer cells. Think about opening up a fire hydrant all the way versus half way. You get a lot more water when you remove the pieces stopping the water from coming out. Inhibitors work in a similar way.
Emerging research is looking at specific inhibitor targets to block, which may potentially maximize patient response.
T cell therapy
T cell therapy takes T cells from your own body and reprograms them. T cells are a type of white blood cell that has many functions, including signaling the production of cells to fight foreign antigens and cancer cells.
The reprogramming process is designed to help your T cells recognize specific cancer cells, making invisible cancer cells visible again. Once reprogrammed, the cells are then returned to your body.
T cell therapy has proven particularly beneficial for certain cancers. For example, clinical trials over the past decade have shown a complete remission rate (remission of cancer) of 68 to 93% of all patients with certain types of leukemia.
Antibodies are created in the body to find and destroy certain antigens. Specifically, antibodies are designed to target very specific molecules. For example, vaccines stimulate the production of antibodies that can bind to a specific virus in the future.
Monoclonal antibodies are antibodies created in a laboratory and are designed to target your specific cancer cells, allowing them to in a more targeted way.
Monoclonal antibody therapy has become a cancer treatment staple, alongside chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.
Researchers are also exploring the use of vaccines to treat cancer, such as dendritic cell vaccine therapy.
These are a little different from typical vaccines, which are designed to prevent certain diseases. Cancer treatment vaccines do not prevent cancer. But, like with typical vaccines, they work to strengthen your immune system and help it fight cancer more effectively.
Treatment vaccines use your own tumor cells to help the immune system recognize tumor-associated antigens, which are present on a cancer cell. Normally, the immune system works by first recognizing antigens and employing different cells to find and attack them. Treatment vaccines may help with recognizing cancer cells.
What are the benefits of immunotherapy?
The goal of many cancer treatments nowadays is to more specifically target cancer cells and spare healthy cells. Immunotherapy is no different. The immune system relies on a very precise system of communication, so leveraging the immune system’s mechanisms to fight cancer could reduce nasty side effects and improve the effectiveness of treatment.
What are the risks of immunotherapy?
A big challenge with immunotherapy, however, is that it doesn’t work for everyone or for all cancer types. Researchers also have questions about how exactly they work, as well as problems like therapeutic resistance (cancer cells become resistant to therapy) that frequently occur.
How can I start immunotherapy?
Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several immunotherapy treatments for different cancers. Many others are ongoing in clinical research studies.
If you want to know more about how immunotherapy could help you, talk to your doctor.