For the past century and a half, various types of treatments were used by the doctors in the battle against one of the diseases that results in almost ten million deaths annually – cancer. From chemotherapies and radiation to vaccines and surgeries, different approaches were taken to treat cancer.
Today, thanks to innovative research and the development of cancer treatment technologies, doctors are able to apply the newest weapon against the disease – immunotherapy. Deemed as the next revolution in cancer treatment, immunotherapy is a type of treatment that is aimed at killing cancer cells by relying on the patient’s own immune system. In this article, we will be taking a look at the characteristics of this cancer treatment, its types, as well as how immunotherapy is successfully employed as a weapon against cancer.
What is immunotherapy?
Also referred to as immuno-oncology, cancer immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy that relies on the power of the human body’s immune system to treat and eliminate cancer, as well as to prevent and control it. It involves using materials and substances from living organisms to fight the disease.
Oftentimes, it’ll be used to redirect the immune system and educate it to recognize and kill cancer cells. Immunotherapy can also be used to boost the immune system response by adding components to the body or to enhance immune cells and aid them in their fight against cancer.
To ensure the best results and maximum effectiveness, immunotherapy is often used alongside other cancer treatments.
What are the types of immunotherapy?
One way to use immunotherapy to treat cancer would be to rely on drugs known as immune checkpoint inhibitors. As the name itself suggests, these drugs block immune checkpoints that are there to prevent the immune system from responding too strongly. By inhibiting them, the immune cells’ (also called T cells) response is much stronger, allowing them to kill cancer cells.
Another type of immunotherapy is a T-cell transfer therapy. The treatment involves extracting the T cells from the tumor (the ones that are most active in fighting cancer) and modifying them (if needed) to be able to better attack cancer cells. These cells are then grown in the lab in large amounts and then inserted through a needle back in your body.
Another type of immunotherapy involves creating immune system proteins called monoclonal antibodies. Some of these antibodies act as markers that make cancer cells more visible to the immune system so that it’s able to destroy them.
Enhancing the immune system’s response is another example of the relationship between immunotherapy and the immune system. For instance, relying on plasmacytoid dendritic cells or pDCs can initiate immune responses and combat virus infection. In addition to fighting virus infection, they also play an important role in developing cancer immunity.
To boost the immune response against cancer, one might also rely on treatment vaccines (different from vaccines that are used to prevent disease) or the immune system modulators that may affect the entire immune system or only its specific parts.
Which types of cancer can be treated with immunotherapy?
Since immunotherapy is based on improving the ability of the immune system to recognize cancer cells, target them, and then destroy them regardless of the area of the body they’re located, immunotherapy poses as an effective solution for treating all types of cancer.
Immunotherapy is deemed to be a universal answer to eliminating cancer and can prove to be effective in treating patients with certain types of cancer that didn’t respond to previous cancer treatments.
Immunotherapy has been approved by the FDA as a treatment to around 20 types of cancer. Since it’s seen as a less harmful treatment option compared to common cancer treatments, immunotherapy is also used to treat pediatric cancer.
How can immunotherapy be given?
Just like there are different types of immunotherapy, there are also different ways in which immunotherapy is administered. Some of the ways immunotherapy can be given are:
- IV – Intravenous – administered directly into the vein
- Intravesical – administered directly into the urinary bladder
- Topical – in the form of a cream that is rubbed onto the skin
- Oral – in the form of a capsule or pill which you can ingest
- The frequency and length of the treatment vary from patient to patient and depends on several factors including:
- Type of cancer
- The stage of the cancer
- Type of checkpoint inhibitors
- Patient’s response to treatment
- Side effects experienced (if any)
It is important to note that while immunotherapy is currently helping save and extend lives, sometimes it may involve certain side effects, and, unfortunately, it may not work for every cancer patient. Whether the patient will respond to the treatment is what scientists are currently researching, and the results of the research could help develop new strategies that, in turn, may help increase the number of patients potentially benefiting from this type of cancer treatment.
Still, immunotherapy can be a viable solution for many individuals diagnosed with various types of cancer, with many oncologists prescribing this type of cancer treatment, especially in the U.S. where it has been approved. Although more research is needed to be able to take full advantage of the immune system’s capability to fight cancer, immunotherapy has the potential to revolutionize the way doctors approach cancer treatments and use the immune system as a weapon on the battlefield with cancer.