According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 38.4% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes.
Cancer affects the immune system. When any new threat attacks the body, it triggers an alert, and our immune system kicks into action to fight against the disease or virus that is making us feel sick. But compared to the many diseases the immune system defends against, cancer poses its own set of challenges.
The Immune System And Cancer
Challenges that come with the immune system and cancer are that it is harder for the body to detect cancer cells because the disease alters the normal cells and cancer cells rapidly replicate. This is when a new treatment for cancer called immunotherapy comes in.
Immunotherapy is a new treatment for cancer, including cancers of the bladder, kidney, head and neck, lymphoma, melanoma and non-small-cell lung cancer.
In some cancers, traditional treatments such as chemotherapy work well. In other cases, immunotherapy is added to traditional treatments, which boosts the body's natural defenses to fight cancer.
In immunotherapy, the body's own immune system helps fight cancer cells. The substances used in immunotherapy are either made by the human body, or in a laboratory, to trigger or improve immune system function.
"Immunotherapy treatments work in a completely different manner than chemotherapy," said Harsha Ranganath, MD, an oncologist with Franciscan Physician Network Oncology & Hematology Specialists. "There are several different types of immunotherapy that have been developed in the last decade, and this has given us several exciting treatment options."
New Treatment For Advanced Cancers
"Many of the benefits we are seeing from immunotherapy have been advanced stage cancers where there was previously little hope. In such cases, there have been dramatic improvements for patient survival and quality of life," Dr. Ranganath said.
Immunotherapy typically benefits those patients in later stages of cancer, said Wajihuddin Syed, MD, an oncologist with Franciscan Physician Network Internal Medicine and Specialty Center.
"Patients having cancer in later stages generally respond well and better than those with early stage malignancies," he said.
How Immunotherapy Treats Cancer
Cancer treatment has come a long way from traditional chemotherapy. New cancer treatments such as immunotherapy, target only the cancer cells and spares the healthy cells, which result in less side effects and the ability to extend survival and improve patient quality of life. There are several types of immunotherapy approaches to treat cancer, some of which may be used at Franciscan Health Cancer Centers throughout Indiana and south-suburban Chicago.
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors, which are drugs that block immune checkpoints. These checkpoints are a normal part of the immune system and keep immune responses from being too strong. By blocking them, these drugs allow immune cells to respond more strongly to cancer.
- T-cell transfer therapy, which is a new cancer treatment that boosts the natural ability of your T-cells to fight cancer. In this treatment, immune cells are taken from a tumor and genetically engineered in a special lab. After that process, the modified cells are reintroduced into the body through an infusion.
- Monoclonal antibodies, which are immune system proteins created in the lab that are designed to bind to specific targets on cancer cells. Some monoclonal antibodies mark cancer cells so they will be better seen and destroyed by the immune system.
- Treatment vaccines, which work against cancer by boosting a patient’s immune system's response to cancer cells. These are different than vaccines used to prevent cancer.
There are advantages to these types of immunotherapy.
"Immunotherapy is usually administered intravenously and there are various kinds of agents that work in different types of cancers," Dr. Syed said. "The biggest advantage of immunotherapy is there are fewer lasting side effects on patients compared to conventional chemotherapy. This means we see the effect of this therapy long after treatment is completed."
Currently immunotherapy is only available for certain types of cancer; however, researchers believe in the future, there will be less chemotherapy and more targeted immunotherapy for essentially all cancer types.