It’s called immunotherapy and more cancer patients use it each day to fight the disease. While it is more than 20 years old, many look at immunotherapy as a new way to fight different types of cancer by using the body’s own immune system to do the work.
Immunotherapy works in several different ways. Some immunotherapies work by stimulating the body’s own immune system to fight a disease. The treatments do this by either boosting the immune system in a general way, or the therapies can actually train the immune system to specifically attack some part of cancer cells.
Other treatments use antibodies created in a lab that boost the immune system once they enter a person’s body. Other immunotherapies don’t affect the immune system as much. Instead, the antibodies do the work of targeting specific cancer cells. The antibodies either stop the cancer cells from growing or they make the cancer cells die. This type of cancer treatment is much different than chemotherapy, which is a less-specific way to fight cancer.
Doctors use three main types of immunotherapies to treat cancer. They include:
- Monoclonal antibodies: Scientists create these antibodies in a lab to be immune system proteins. These antibodies treat cancer by attacking a specific part of a cancer cell.
- Cancer vaccines: Doctors put this treatment into a person’s body to stimulate an immune response against certain diseases. Most people associate vaccines with something that is given to a healthy person to prevent an infection, such as the flu shot. However, some of the vaccines may be able to help prevent or treat cancer.
- Non-specific immunotherapies: Doctors designed these treatments to boost the immune system in a general way, but it can still result in more activity by the immune system to fight cancer cells.
Doctors already use immunotherapy drugs to treat several types of cancers, including bladder, breast, colon, kidney, lung and prostate cancer. The immunotherapies can also treat leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and melanoma.
It’s important to note that this is still a relatively new form of treatment and many of the remedies remain in the research stage. Experts do not yet consider vaccines a major cancer treatment, but researchers are studying many options. In the case of breast cancer, early studies found that one type of vaccine therapy may lengthen the remission and survival times of some women with early forms of breast cancer. While HPV vaccines are already available to help prevent some types of cervical cancer, others are in clinical trials. These vaccines try to cause an immune reaction to the parts of the virus that aids the growth of cancer cells in the cervix. If this is successful, it may kill the cancer cells or stop them from growing.
Other forms of immunotherapy try to boost specific parts of the immune system. While these treatments show promise, they are complex and so far only available through clinical trials at major medical centers.
Targeted therapy is another type of immunotherapy. These drugs work differently than treatments like chemotherapy because they can attack cancerous cells while leaving normal cells undamaged. In essence, the targeted therapy can go after a cancer cell’s programming that makes it different from a normal, healthy cell. Targeted therapy often has less severe side effects than chemotherapy.
Immunotherapy is not only being used for people facing cancer. Recently, an immunotherapy treatment for relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) showed success in a trial. Immunotherapy is also used to help people with allergies, notably the type that causes asthma.
“Immunotherapy is the wave of the future for cancer treatment. Therapy this revolutionary is going to increase our ability to cure patients who in the past haven’t had options,” said David L. Porter, M.D., Professor, Department of Medicine and Director of the Abramson Cancer Center’s Blood and Bone Marrow Transplantation Program.
To give you an idea of how much people believe in the power of immunotherapy, a California biopharmaceutical company recently earned a preclinical investment of more than $1 billion.
To learn more about immunotherapy, visit Cancer.org’s section on the treatment.