According to the National Cancer Institute, 38 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. Luckily, many types of cancers are treatable through medication, chemotherapy, radiation and, now, immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy, a form of biologic therapy, uses your body’s immune system to help fight cancer. Immunotherapy uses substances made by the body or in a laboratory, to either boost the immune system overall, or train the immune system to attack cancer cells. Immunotherapy can slow or stop cancer cell growth, and stop the spread of cancer throughout the body.
The immune system is a network of cells, tissues and organs that work together to protect your body from infection and disease. It creates immune cells that attack foreign substances deemed as harmful, called antigens. Antigens include viruses, fungi and bacteria.
Although the immune system is usually successful at combating common illnesses, like the flu, it has a hard time targeting cancer cells. This is because cancer occurs when regular cells within the body become altered and start to grow out of control. Since cancer cells are similar to normal cells, the immune system doesn’t always recognize cancer cells as foreign and fails to attack them. That’s why people with healthy immune systems can still develop cancer.
To counter this, researchers developed immunotherapy, which helps the immune system recognize cancer cells and strengthens its ability to destroy them. Immunotherapy can be used on its own or in conjunction with other cancer treatments.
Multiple types of immunotherapy are used to treat cancer, including immune checkpoint inhibitors, T-cell therapy, cancer vaccines and monoclonal antibodies.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors are the most widely used. These medications cause the immune system to work in overdrive. Although these treatments are generally well tolerated and not associated with side effects such as hair loss, nausea, fatigue and risk of infection, they can cause your body to attack normal tissues in rare instances.
In T-cell therapy, cells that fight infections are removed from the patient’s body and altered to detect cancer cells. Then, they are placed back into the body by transfusion to seek out and destroy the cancer.
Cancer vaccines are put into the body to start an immune response against certain cancers. Monoclonal antibodies are man-made versions of immune system proteins, which are created in a lab and injected into the body to attack a specific part of a cancer cell.
Immunotherapy is helping patients live longer with milder side effects than traditional chemotherapy. Certain molecular changes in tumor cells can predict if these treatments are likely to be effective.
If you have recently been diagnosed with cancer, ask your physician if immunotherapy may be right for you.
Dr. Jessica Croley is with KentuckyOne Health Hematology and Oncology Associates.