Immunotherapy harnesses the body’s innate immunity to attack disease, including cancer. Immunotherapy is becoming more mainstream in regard to cancer, and is getting increasingly better as more research is being conducted. Optimizing immune function is pivotal to preventing and eradicating cancer and other diseases. Here are some facts about immunotherapy that will help you better understand this innovative therapy.
Biological Response Modifier Therapy
Immunotherapy, is a type of biotherapy, also referred to as biological response modifier therapy (BMR) or biologic therapy. It’s called such because materials from living organisms are use. Immunotherapy is used against a wide range of malignancies, including small-non-cell lung cancer, kidney, ovarian, and head and neck cancers, as well as metastatic bladder cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This immune-based therapy is showing promise for all types of cancer, and is being expanded through clinical trials.
The immune system provides the greatest defense against cancer. Understanding the interactions between immunity and cancer is key, to not only identifying cancer, but gaining insight in how to fight it. The immune system is a complex system composed of cells, tissues, and organs, along with the molecules they secrete. Strong immunity protects the body from pathogenic invaders and abnormal cells, including mutated cells that could potentially turn cancerous.
Cancer cells are notorious for their ability to evade the immune system. Immunotherapy drugs work because they expose cancer cells, that have previously remained undetected, due to their ability to pose as normal cells. Cancer cells, are in fact, normal cells that have mutated. Immunotherapy drugs stimulate the immune system to more effectively recognize and target cancer. Tremendous progress has been made, specifically, in regard to immunotherapy and non-small-cell lung cancer.
Personalized Medicine By Dr. Jim Allison
Immunotherapy is a form of personalized medicine that was brought to fruition by Dr. Jim Allison, an immunologist from Texas MD Anderson. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his groundbreaking immune checkpoint blockade research on treating cancer using the immune system. Tasuka Honjo received this award alongside Dr. Allison.
Allison tested his theory that T-cells could help fight cancer by injecting mice with an antibody that would stimulate T cells to attack tumors. All mice given the antibody became cancer-free, whereas mice who were not given the antibody eventually died as their tumors grew.
Based on his T-cell findings, Allison set out to create an antibody that would be safe to use on humans. The immuno-oncology drug Ipilimumab, or Ipi, has been used on almost one million patients worldwide. It was an arduous task to make its use a reality, including a study that lasted five years.
Immunotherapy is not without its limitations. The therapy works better on some cancers than others, with individual people responding more favorably. Some, unfortunately, are non-responsive. Immunotherapy takes longer to work than does chemotherapy, yet doesn’t come with the horrific side effects. The side effects associated with immunotherapy are similar to those one would experience with autoimmunity.
The immune system is immensely powerful and a force to be reckoned with. Side effects may be the result of healthy cells being attacked from the boost in immune function. Learning how the immune system functions in fighting cancer is critical to controlling side effects.
Facts About Immunotherapy
Immunotherapy comprises many types of cancer therapies. Each therapy’s main objective is to stimulate the immune system to better recognize and target cancer. When cytotoxic T cells, and other innate immune cells are activated, they’re better able to defend against malignancies.
Unlike conventional cancer treatments that directly target cancer, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, immunotherapy trains the body’s own immune system to target the cancer. This calibration of immune function taps into the body’s own defense systems without resorting to toxic drugs, which obliterate the immune function. Immunotherapy is sometimes used in conjunction with chemotherapy.
There are five types of immunotherapy, including:
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors
- T-cell transfer therapy
- Cancer vaccines
- Monoclonal antibodies
- General immunotherapies.
1. Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors
Cells have checkpoints that regulate immune response. These checkpoints control T-cells, inactivating them until they are needed, and preventing them from attacking normal cells. One mechanism by which cancer cells evade attack is by removing these immune system controls.
Drugs that block checkpoints are called immune checkpoint inhibitors. These inhibitors help the immune system do its job by disrupting signals sent by cancer cells. Malignant cells are then exposed and can be attacked by T-cells. PD-1 inhibitors regulate PD-1 checkpoints founds on T-cells. These specific inhibitors treat non-small-cell lung, stomach, colorectal, and bladder cancers. They’re also effective against Hodgkin’s lymphoma and melanoma.
CTLA-4 inhibitors inactive the CTLA-4 checkpoint, also found on T-cells, and are used to treat colorectal cancer and melanoma, along with other types of cancer. Immunotherapy drugs can cause symptoms, such as fatigue, loss of appetite, and rashes, due to their effect on the immune system. Here’s a great read if you want to learn more about immunotherapy:
2. T-cell Transfer Therapy
In this type of immunotherapy, T-cells are extracted from a patient’s blood, and reprogrammed to better target cancer cells. Millions of these re-engineered T-cells are then delivered back into the body to exert their effect. T-cell transfer has been used in patients with metastatic melanoma, and various forms of soft-tissue cancers.
Some people respond more favorably to treatment than others, with reactions to the drugs ranging from mild to more serious. Nutritional therapies, along with mind-body medicine, are helpful in reducing uncomfortable side effects, and improving quality of life.
3. Cancer Vaccines
Cancer vaccines are used to initiate an immune response to attack tumor cells. These cells are composed of cancer cell proteins, immune system cells, or dead cancer cells. There are two types of vaccines for cancer, prophylactic or preventative vaccines, and therapeutic vaccines, also called treatment vaccines. Prophylactic vaccines target viruses that may potentially cause cancer.
The HPV vaccine is an example of a prophylactic vaccine used to combat specific strains of the papillomavirus, which is implicated in cervical, anal, and throat cancers. Therapeutic vaccines prompt an immune response to target malignancies in specific locations. For instance, in bladder cancer, live bacteria are injected into the bladder to stimulate an immune attack on malignant cells. Provenge is an approved therapeutic cancer vaccine that treats advanced prostate cancer.
4. Monoclonal Antibodies
Antibodies are immune system molecules that flag proteins as invaders, recruiting other immune messengers to eradicate the flagged proteins. Different types of monoclonal antibodies, each with varying functions, are made in a laboratory, including conjugated, naked, and bi-specific monoclonal antibodies.
Monoclonal antibodies are administered intravenously, and may be used in conjunction with hormone therapy or chemotherapy. The frequency of treatment is dependent on the type of cancer involved. You can learn more in the audiobook below:
5. General Immunotherapies
General immunotherapies boost immune system activity without specifically targeting a tumor. Cytokines are protein molecules the body produces to regulate immune function, and control immune cell activity. These cytokines can be synthesized in a lab, and injected back into the body in large doses to treat cancer. Interleukins and interferons are two cytokines used in cancer immunotherapy.
Interleukin 2 (IL-2) is a cytokine that prevents autoimmunity, fights infections, and targets T and B cells, components of the adaptive immune system, which attack tumors. IL-2 is approved to treat metastatic melanomas and cancer of the kidney.
Interferons are cytokines that defend against bacteria and viruses. When used as a general immunotherapy, interferon-alpha (IFN-alpha) generates innate immune cells, including macrophages and dendritic cells, to target abnormal cells. IFN-alpha is used to treat kidney cancer, Kaposi sarcoma, melanoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and different types of leukemia.
Immunotherapy optimizes overall immune response to rid the body of cancer. When immune messengers are exploited to target cancer cells, tumors shrink, and eventually retreat. The body can better identify and eliminate damaging organisms when drugs are used to turn on immune cells.
Many people, with no other recourse, are being helped through the enhancement of their own immune systems. The goal of immunotherapy is to unleash immune function, while moderating drugs to maximize efficacy and minimize toxicity. Pairing the science of immune function with the science of cancer is reducing the mortality rate of those suffering from this devastating disease.
Have you or someone you know been treated with immunotherapy? Please share your experiences below.
(1) The Washington Post: A Texas Scientist Who Won The Nobel Prize
(2) Cancer Treatment Centers of America: Immunotherapy
(3) WebMD: Types of Immunotherapy
(4) American Cancer Society: What Is Cancer Immunotherapy?
(5) National Cancer Institute: Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer
(6) Cancer.net: Understanding Immunotherapy
(7) Cancer Research Institute: What Is Cancer Immunotherapy?
Disclaimer: This article is strictly for informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice. Please be diligent and always do your own research in regard to any material I present on this site. I claim no responsibility for any distress, whether it be physical or emotional, that may occur as a result of the information you obtain from my blog.