How Immunotherapy Works to Combat Cancer

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Globally, cancer is among the leading causes of death. By 2040, it is estimated that the number of new cancer cases per year will rise to 29.5 million. Though this number is very daunting, there is still hope when it comes to recovery, especially as researchers develop new treatments and enhance existing ones.  

One of those treatments is immunotherapy, which has effectively battled certain types of cancer. Here’s how immunotherapy works and what patients with cancer can expect from this treatment. 

Immunotherapy Treatments Work with the Immune System

In essence, immunotherapy is a treatment that helps the immune system fight cancer cells. The immune system — which is made up of white blood cells, antibodies, the complement system, the lymphatic system, the spleen, the thymus, and the bone marrow — detects and destroys abnormal cells that infiltrate the body. 

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The immune system actually works to prevent or curb the growth of a lot of cancers, but cancer cells can sometimes overcome its defenses. In those instances, immunotherapy treatments can help. By working with the immune system to tackle cancer cells found in the body, this type of biological therapy — a therapy made from living organisms — can boost one’s natural defenses. 

Different Types of Immunotherapy

There are actually several different types of immunotherapy treatments that cancer patients can take. 

  • CAR T-Cell Therapy: With chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, T-cells are taken from a patient’s blood and mixed with a special virus that can attach to tumor cells. Those special T-cells are then inserted back into the patient to find, attach to, and kill cancer cells.
  • Immunomodulators: These are drugs that help to boost parts of the immune system to treat certain types of cancers.
  • mAbs: Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs or MoAbs) are another type of immunotherapy treatment that are human-made versions of immune system proteins. They can help with treating cancer because they can be specifically designed to attack a certain part of a cancer cell. Oncolytic viruses have also been modified by man in a lab to infect and kill certain tumor cells.

What Can Patients Expect? 

Not every patient with cancer is a candidate for immunotherapy as it often hinges on the type of cancer as well as how advanced it is at the time treatment is requested. Moreover, use of immunotherapy also depends on if current cancer treatment guidelines and data support immunotherapy as a treatment for cancer. Most often, ideal candidates are those who have advanced cancer and have exhausted other conventional treatment options. 

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Much like chemotherapy, patients usually receive immunotherapy treatment at an outpatient oncology center via infusion through a port or intravenous therapy (IV). It can also be given through pills or capsules that are swallowed, topical creams or intravesical treatment — that is, treatment that’s put directly in the bladder. 

The dosage and frequency a patient receives are based on the specific medicine being used for the treatment, the type of cancer they have, how advanced their cancer is, and, of course, how their body reacts to the treatment. For some patients, treatment might occur daily, while others might receive weekly or monthly immunotherapy. 

Immunotherapy Brings Great Benefits and Potential Side Effects

When compared to chemotherapy and radiation, immunotherapy does have some advantages. For example, this type of treatment has fewer immediate and long-term side effects. Other therapies are linked to heart issues, surgical complications, and problems with hormones and memory. Additionally, patients have a strong possibility of continuing immunotherapy treatments for a longer duration while still having a good quality of life.

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However, there are still some side effects related to immunotherapy. Some of the most common include diarrhea, fatigue, rash, and autoimmune response. Other, less common side effects may include pain, swelling, soreness, and itchiness, as well as flu-like symptoms, such as fever, nausea, chills, headaches, and trouble breathing. In some cases, these side effects may be treated, but, in others, further immunotherapy treatment may be delayed to allow the patient time to recover. 

Immunotherapy Can Fight Multiple Types of Cancer

Immunotherapy is a relatively new treatment. There have been major strides in immunotherapy research through clinical trials, and it has been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for treating several types of cancer; melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer were the first cancers to get approval for this treatment. Other cancers approved for immunotherapy treatments include liver cancer, stomach cancer, cervical cancer, bladder cancer, some breast cancers, and lymphoma.

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However, researchers are still working to make sure that immunotherapy treatment will be as effective — or better than — other treatments available to patients. For example, the FDA has not approved this treatment for use in combating pancreatic cancer and colon cancer.

Researchers Will Continue to Improve Immunotherapy Treatments

Though immunotherapy treatments have proved helpful already, researchers are working to improve their effectiveness. For one, researchers are eager to reduce the side effects associated with this treatment. Additionally, they are aiming to ensure that cancer cells have limited resistance to immunotherapy — and part of that boils down to understanding how cancer cells evade the immune system’s efforts in the first place. 

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If you’re wondering if immunotherapy is a good course of treatment for you, consult your medical professional(s). It’s important to understand which treatment is best for you given your individual circumstances. Doctors can let you know if you’re a candidate for immunotherapy — or if further genomic testing is required before moving forward with the treatment. 

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