Boosting your defenses: targeting cancer with immunotherapy
Immunotherapy refers to innovative treatments that use a person's immune system to fight cancer. Find out how these treatments work and which types of cancer respond best to immunotherapy.
What is immunotherapy?
Your immune system protects you from infection and disease. A network of organs, antibodies, white blood cells, and chemicals, the immune system typically identifies and attacks foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria.
However, the immune system doesn't always recognize cancer cells the same way it does other harmful substances, giving cancer cells the chance to grow and spread. Immunotherapy treatment can help the immune system identify and destroy cancer cells more effectively. As a biological therapy, immunotherapy uses material from living things to form treatment solutions.
Immunotherapy may be administered through an IV, orally, as a vaccine, or directly into the affected organ. It may also be given in combination with other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. It's not suitable for all types of cancer, and not all patients respond to immunotherapy treatment.
Currently, there are immunotherapy treatments available for several types of cancer, including:
- Bladder cancer
- Blood cancers, including lymphoma, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and multiple myeloma
- Cervical cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Lung cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Some skin cancers, including melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma
Cancer research is always advancing, and there are ongoing clinical trials for various types of immunotherapy to treat other cancers.
Types of immunotherapy treatments
There are several different forms of immunotherapy to treat cancer, and each works differently:
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors: Checkpoint inhibitors help the immune system find and attack cancer cells. They also block checkpoint proteins, which help keep the body's immune response from being too strong.
- Manmade cytokines: Cytokines are a part of the immune system. They act as messengers between cells. Cytokine proteins developed in a lab can boost the immune system to fight cancer.
- Monoclonal antibodies: Antibodies are disease-fighting proteins. Some monoclonal antibody treatments can target specific cancer cells. Others strengthen the immune system overall.
- Oncolytic virus therapy: This type of immunotherapy uses viruses to infect and kill cancer cells. The virus treatment is modified in a lab to make it less likely to infect healthy cells.
- T-cell therapy: This type of immunotherapy modifies a patient's white blood cells to enhance their ability to destroy cancer cells. Clinicians will collect a sample of cells called T cells from a patient's blood and alter it in a lab with a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR). These T cells are then put back in the patient's body so they can attach to cancer cell antigens and better trigger the body's immune response.
- Vaccines: Preventive vaccines protect against viruses often leading to cancer. For example, cervical cancer is often caused by the human papillomavirus. In contrast, treatment vaccines are used to improve the body's immune response to existing cancer cells.
Eligibility for immunotherapy
Every patient is different, so not everyone with the types of cancer listed above will qualify for immunotherapy. Additionally, not every patient benefits from this type of treatment, as adverse side effects may occur.
As medical researchers and scientists continue experimenting with immunotherapy, new developments will arise and the number of patients who can benefit from this treatment will likely increase.
Regardless of the specific treatment, your options will depend on several factors, including:
- The type of cancer you have
- The stage of your cancer, or how far it has spread
- Current treatment guidelines and recommendations
- Your age and overall health
Your healthcare provider may use biomarker testing to determine if immunotherapy might be a good fit for you. Also known as genomic testing or profiling, this provides information about the specific genes and proteins in cancer cells. For example, if testing reveals a biomarker protein called PD-L1 is present in tumor cells, immune checkpoint inhibitor treatment may be effective.
At Reid Health, our experienced oncology team offers cutting-edge cancer treatments and targeted therapy. Reid Cancer Center serves patients in East Central Indiana, West Central Ohio, and the surrounding areas, so you can receive cancer care close to home. Call (855) 935-8773 to speak with a member of our cancer care team.