Here’s Why Immunotherapy Is Transforming Cancer Treatment
Immunotherapy is an innovative new way to battle cancer. Whereas chemotherapy targets tumors directly, it can also damage healthy cells, making it likely to weaken the immune system.1 Immunotherapy can activate your immune system to make it stronger and even help it identify and attack cancer cells.
Immunotherapy works better for some types of cancer than others. In some cases, it works best when combined with other types of therapy. Research shows that the medications nivolumab and ipilimumab delayed the progression of melanoma in 58 percent of cancer patients.2 This type of treatment is being heavily studied, with more than 800 clinical trials having been conducted to determine the effects of immunotherapy.3
What Is Immunotherapy?
Your immune system protects you from damaging substances, such as viruses and bacteria, which can cause illness. It attacks foreign elements, including cancer cells.
However, cancer cells can deactivate the immune system’s anti-tumor response. Also, the body doesn’t always recognize tumor cells as harmful.4 Immunotherapy helps the body recognize destructive cancer cells and boost its own responses to destroy them.
Some types of immunotherapy include the following.
- CAR T-cell Therapy: This is used to treat certain blood cancers that aren’t responsive to other treatments. It involves removing T-cells from your blood, adding chimeric antigen receptors to them, so they identify and destroy specific types of cancer cells, and adding them back into your bloodstream.
- TCR Therapy: This also reprograms T-cells to seek out specific antigens in cancer cells. It’s not approved by the FDA, but it is being tested in people with metastatic melanoma and synovial sarcoma.
- TIL Therapy: Tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, white blood cells that are made in your body and attack cancer cells, are removed from a tumor and reproduced and strengthened in a lab before being reintroduced into the bloodstream. This type of treatment is being studied in people with skin, colorectal, kidney, and ovarian cancers.
- Monoclonal Antibodies: Immune system proteins are made in a lab and introduced to the body to target specific cancer tissues.
- Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors: These may be used to treat a variety of cancers. They rev up your immune system and stop cancer cells from turning off signaling mechanisms that recognize tumors.
- Vaccines: Cancer vaccines are made from immune system or cancer cells and spur your body’s own immune reaction to these cells. Sipuleucel-T is a vaccine that is fully approved for treating prostate cancer that doesn’t improve with other treatments.
- Other Immunotherapies: These act by maximizing the general function of your immune system.5
Advantages of Immunotherapy
There are many ways that immunotherapy can help you fight cancer, according to WebMD.
- It can shrink tumors that don’t respond to other cancer treatments.
- It can improve the effectiveness of other therapies.
- It may produce fewer side effects because it targets only immune system cells.
- It teaches your body to attack cancer cells, potentially preventing them from returning.6
Other experts say that additional benefits of immunotherapy include the following.
- The ability for tumor-specific treatments to reach areas that are inaccessible to surgeons.
- The potential to attack smaller disease particles.
- Better targeting of slowly dividing cancer cells.
- Reduced damage to healthy tissue.7
Immunotherapy vs. Chemotherapy, Radiation & Drug Therapy
There are pros and cons associated with every type of cancer treatment. Because of that, it’s important to understand what types of therapies are best for the patient and the type of cancer.
Chemotherapy attacks cells as they’re rapidly dividing. However, it doesn’t differentiate between healthy and abnormal cells. It is effective while the drugs are in your system. Immunotherapy supports your health to help your body continue to fight cancer even after your treatment has ended.
The Melanoma Research Alliance claims that immunotherapy is more effective than chemotherapy for melanoma.8 Although chemotherapy may be used on its own, it is often administered in combination with other cancer treatments.
According to the National Cancer Institute, high doses of radiation can be used to damage the DNA within cancer cells and diminish the size of tumors.9 It takes some time to kill off the harmful tissues, but cancer cells continue to perish after the treatment ends.
Radiation is often combined with chemotherapy or surgery, but it may be used as a non-invasive treatment when surgery is impossible. Immunotherapy can also be used in this manner. Using radiation with immunotherapy may be less toxic than combining chemotherapy and immunotherapy.10
Drug therapy for cancer, often referred to as targeted therapy, uses oral drugs to damage specific cancer cells. Some drugs can inhibit genetic mutations.11
Drug therapy may not be as long-lasting as immunotherapy, especially if the cancer becomes resistant to the medication. Also, it’s not effective for treating some types of cancer. However, some drugs are biologics, which work by boosting the immune system in a similar manner as immunotherapy.
A Promising New Approach
Every patient is different, and there are many factors that go into choosing the best cancer treatment. Immunotherapy looks extremely promising for its ability to target a wider variety of cancer types and produce fewer side effects.12
People who undergo immunotherapy aren’t impervious to negative reactions, though. This type of treatment can make your system go into overdrive. With an overactive immune system, you may experience side effects such as rashes, flu-like symptoms, abdominal distress and toxicity. These symptoms tend to subside after the first few treatments, however.13