Health & Medicine

Immunotherapy: Using the body’s defense system to fight cancer

Dr. Lowell Anthony
Dr. Lowell Anthony

Back in December, Jimmy Carter surprised the nation by announcing that he no longer had any traces of cancer in his system, just a few months after announcing a frightening stage IV melanoma diagnosis.

So what led to his surprising good news? A specific type of cancer treatment called immunotherapy.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a potential treatment for patients with advanced melanoma and some types of lung cancers. Immunotherapy, also known as biologic therapy or biotherapy, is a treatment that can add extra components to the immune system to make it fight harder or stimulate the immune system to specifically attack cancer cells.

Though this may seem self-explanatory — isn't that what your immune system is designed to do? — cancer cells are tricky because they are not foreign objects. They are made up of our own cells that have mutated, which can be hard for our immune systems to detect.

To help the immune system recognize these rogue cancer cells, patients may be given a few different types of immunotherapy:

▪  Man-made immune system proteins known as monoclonal antibodies, which target a specific part of a cancer cell

▪  Immune checkpoint inhibitors, which "take the brakes off" of the immune system

▪  Cancer vaccines, which may help jump-start an immune response — this is also how Guardasil works as a preventative treatment for cervical cancer

Additionally, there are other less specific immunotherapies that may boost the immune system in a more general way.

Does this treatment have side effects?

There are side effects to immunotherapy, just like any other powerful cancer treatment including chemotherapy and radiation. The most common side effects include flu-like symptoms, fatigue, rashes, fever, and drops in blood pressure. Less common side effects include problems with the thyroid, lungs, or gastrointestinal tract.

How expensive is immunotherapy?

Currently, cost may be an issue for patients seeking immunotherapy. Some medications may total upwards of $12,000 a month, although insurance may cover some of the cost for approved indications.

While immunotherapy may not be a viable option for everyone, it is a powerful tool in the arsenal of treatments for certain cancer patients.

Dr. Lowell Anthony is a medical oncologist at the UK Markey Cancer Center.