Immunotherapy: Boosting Your Body's Weapon In The Fight Against Cancer

Posted on: 24 April 2017

A cancer diagnosis can be a terrifying prospect for the new patient. The good news is that, according to the American Cancer Society, the overall cancer death rate dropped by 26 percent over a 25-year period between 1990 and 2015. Among women, cancer death rates declined by 22 percent, and a decline of 32 percent was reported for men. Breast cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer death rates are all on the decline. Advances in research, earlier detection methods and new treatment protocols are all contributing factors toward these encouraging statistics. One class of treatment, which is known as immunotherapy, has shown promise in providing the body with the power to fight cancer. If you have been diagnosed with cancer, understanding what immunotherapy is can empower you with the knowledge that you need to discuss cancer treatment options with your oncologist.

Your Immune System

Your immune system is made up of cells and substances produced by these cells, which circulate through the body to protect you from viruses, bacteria and other invading pathogens. The immune system launches an attack on any substances, including those from germs or cancer cells, that do not normally reside in the body. Since cancer cells result when the body's cells alter and escalate in cellular division rates, the immune system cannot always identify the cancer cells as foreign, and as cancer cells spread, the immune system cannot keep up to fight them off. Cancer researchers have been working diligently to formulate immunotherapy to enhance your immune system's fighting capabilities for the tougher battle that cancer presents.

Immunotherapy Defined

Immunotherapy, which is sometimes referred to as biologic therapy, is the medical treatment that utilizes components of the body's immune system to stimulate the immune response needed to combat diseases, including some types of cancer. Immunotherapy can work in the following two different ways:

  • Some immunotherapies prompt your immune system to work more aggressively in targeting cancer cells.
  • Other immunotherapy methods enhance your immune system by introducing synthetic immune system proteins.

Some cancers respond to immunotherapy alone, while others respond best when immunotherapy is combined with other forms of cancer treatment. Depending on which cancer a patient has, an oncologist will recommend which type of immunotherapy will provide the greatest chance for successful treatment.

Types of Immunotherapy

There are several different types of immunotherapy, and different types of cancer respond differently to different types of therapy. Some of the immunotherapies that oncologists are prescribing include the following:

  • Monoclonal antibodies are synthetic immune system protein drugs that are formulated to bind specifically to targeted parts of cancer cells.
  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that stimulate the immune system to rev up and amp up its cancer cell recognition and its attack on these cells.
  • Adoptive cell transfer works to augment the ability of the body's T cells, which are one type of your immune system's white blood cells, to fight cancer.
  • Cytokines are proteins that are synthesized by the body's cells for normal immune response function. Two types of cytokines, which are called interferons and interleukins, can influence the body's ability to launch an immune response to target cancer.

In addition to these therapies, researchers are also studying the prospects of using vaccines to treat certain types of cancer.

Cancer Vaccines

Vaccines are typically thought of as preventative measures to ward off contracting certain diseases. Vaccination involves the introduction of weakened or killed viruses or bacteria into the body to spark an immune system in the body so that it is primed to fight these pathogens and protect individuals from contracting the infections. Certain vaccines, such as that which is administered to prevent the human papilloma virus, have shown some efficacy in helping the body to fight a few types of cancer that can result from the same infection. Researchers are working tirelessly to develop cancer vaccines that will encourage the immune system to target other specific cancers in the future.

Immunotherapies are administered orally, intravenously or topically, depending on the therapy used. The general side effects of immunotherapy may include pain, swelling, soreness, skin rashes and itchiness, and patients may experience flu-like symptoms while their bodies work hard to fight their cancers. Your oncologist will discuss side effects and recommend a treatment schedule once he or she determines whether immunotherapy will provide you with the best fighting chance at winning your cancer battle.