Did you know that June is Immunotherapy Awareness Month? Immunotherapy refers to a method of treatment that uses parts of the immune system to combat diseases. In recent decades, it has played an important role in fighting cancer. Here’s a closer look at immunotherapy and its incredible uses in the medical field.
How immunotherapy works
Immunotherapy typically refers to one of two methods:
- Your body’s natural defenses are stimulated so that the immune system is better able to identify and attack cancer cells.
- You are given substances that mirror the functions of the immune system. These medicines work in conjunction with your white blood cells as reinforcements.
Your immune system and its function
Your immune system includes specialized cells and organs to recognize and help fight infections and foreign substances. When the immune system recognizes something that’s harmful to the body, such as bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells, it initiates an attack or immune response to eliminate it. While the immune system can destroy most foreign substances, it may have trouble targeting cancer cells. Cancer begins when normal cells mutate and start to reproduce at an alarming rate. Because cancer originates from normal cells and because it can develop mechanisms to evade the immune system, it can remain undetected.
Occasionally, your immune system will identify the cancer cells as abnormal but won’t respond strongly or swiftly enough to eradicate them. In these cases, your body needs a little assistance. Immunotherapy can help the immune system recognize cancer cells and improve its ability to destroy them.
Types of cancer immunotherapy
There are several types of immunotherapy currently used to treat cancer, and many more are being studied. Some of the main forms of immunotherapy include:
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors: To distinguish between normal and foreign cells, your immune system uses “checkpoints,” or molecules that must be activated in order to produce a response. In some cases, cancer cells can manipulate checkpoints to avoid triggering a reaction. Checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that can help the immune system recognize cancer cells that it might not be able to recognize otherwise.
- Immune system modulators: These drugs boost your immune system’s response to cancer.
- Monoclonal antibodies: Monoclonal antibodies are produced in a lab. They are designed to locate specific antigens produced by cancer cells and to trigger the immune system to fight them.
- T-cell transfer therapy: T cells are a type of white blood cell. CAR T-cell therapy (also called gene or cell therapy) involves taking T- cells from your body, altering them with a virus that enhances their ability to find and destroy cancer cells, and returning them so that they can work more effectively.
- Treatment vaccines: Treatment vaccines boost your immune system’s response to cancer cells.
The future of immunotherapy
The field of immunotherapy is rapidly changing, and new medications are constantly being tested and approved. Immunotherapy is now an integral part of some cancer treatments and likely will play an even larger role in the future.