Immunotherapy is a fairly new cancer treatment. While chemotherapy and radiation therapy work by killing cancer cells directly, immunotherapy gives your body’s immune system a boost to identify and eliminate cancer.
“Immunotherapy enhances the body’s innate response to cancer, and the effects can sometimes last beyond the treatment period to keep the cancer from returning,” said Bud Pierce, MD, PhD, from Samaritan Hematology & Oncology Consultants with the Samaritan Cancer Program. “It’s a more targeted way to treat cancer because there is less harm to healthy cells.”
The Body’s Immune System
The immune system does a pretty good job of defending your body from foreign substances like bacteria and viruses to protect you from infection and disease. The immune system also keeps track of your cells, destroying any that are abnormal.
However, the immune system sometimes has difficulty identifying cancer cells.
“Some types of cancer are similar to normal cells so the immune system doesn’t recognize it as abnormal. Some types of cancer have figured out how to ‘hide’ from the immune system and sometimes the immune system just isn’t strong enough to destroy the cancer,” said Dr. Pierce.
Immunotherapy treatments work by helping to improve the body’s natural defenses.
Immunotherapy for Cancer Treatment
Immunotherapy is a growing field, but there are currently five common types of treatment:
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors. The body has natural immune checkpoints that keep it from overreacting. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are a medication that blocks the body’s natural immune regulation. This lets the immune system respond more strongly to target and kill tumor cells.
- T-cell transfer therapy. T-cells are a part of the immune system that target and destroy diseased cells. During T-cell transfer therapy, a sample of the patient’s own T-cells are taken and modified in a lab to recognize and kill cancer cells. These enhanced T-cells are reintroduced to the patient where they can get to work destroying the cancer.
- Monoclonal antibodies. These are antibodies created in a lab to bind to specific cancer cells, making the cells more visible to the immune system. The immune system then targets and destroys the cancer cells.
- Treatment vaccines. These vaccines teach the immune system to identify a substance called tumor-associated antigens that are present in cancer cells. The immune system can then destroy the cancerous cells.
- Immune system modulators. These boost the body’s immune response against cancer.
Who Is Best Suited for Immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy can be used by itself or in combination with other forms of treatment like chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. Not all forms of cancer respond to immunotherapy, but the list of FDA-approved treatment protocols is rising, said Dr. Pierce. This is especially exciting for forms of cancer that have had limited options in the past.
For instance, a combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy has been approved to treat metastatic triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive and difficult-to-treat form of the disease.
“Immunotherapy is not right for every person or every form of cancer, but the number of ways it can be effective is evolving,” said Dr. Pierce. “We are seeing good results in almost every major cancer area including breast, kidney and bladder.”
All cancer treatments at Samaritan Cancer Program are personalized to the patient’s type, stage and location of cancer, as well as their individual health and concerns, and other factors.
“There is no one-size-fits-all for cancer treatment, but we can evaluate the proven standards of care and take into consideration the direction research and treatment are headed,” said Dr. Pierce. “Immunotherapy is likely going to develop as a cornerstone for cancer treatment moving forward.”
Learn more about cancer services available through the Samaritan Cancer Program.