With a disease (or more accurately, group of diseases) as complex and constantly evolving as cancer, the term “cure” can be a little abstract and even misleading. While the goal is certainly to eliminate all or as much of any malignant cells as possible, a treatment that works on an adult suffering from one form of cancer may be completely ineffective or have limited results in a child, or even another adult suffering from a similar form of the disease.
Immunotherapy – Targeting Tumors with Nature’s Machinery
For several decades, chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery (typically some combination of the three, depending on the type, location, and stage of the cancer, as well as the individual patient’s health profile and prognosis) have been the standard forms of treatment for most cancer diagnoses.
In recent years, researchers and clinicians have been studying how the body’s own immune system and natural disease fighting capabilities might be used to design treatments that not only target specific cancer cells, but also minimize the side effects and risk to the surrounding healthy tissue.
What is Immunotherapy?
Also known as biologic therapy, the goal of immunotherapy is to bolster the body’s natural immune function to help it fight tumors more effectively. Although it is a relatively new treatment modality that is still in development, it focuses on three factors of cancer treatment:
- Slowing tumor growth
- Preventing tumor metastasis (spread to other parts of the body)
- Improving overall immune function to help the body fight cancer more effectively
There are four types of immunotherapy treatments:
Preventive and treatment vaccines are available to help the body avoid certain known cancer-causing agents, such as the human papilloma virus (HPV) in women, which can cause cervical cancer. Treatment vaccines help the body recognize and issue an immune response to certain types of cancer cells.
Designed to mimic proteins produced by the immune system to fight disease and infection, monoclonal antibodies are engineered to target specific cancer cells, without harming normal cells and tissue. Monoclonal antibodies have four main functions:
- Help the immune system to recognize and prevent the proliferation of cancer cells
- Help to deliver targeted radiation therapy to cancer cells (radioimmunotherapy)
- Deliver other cancer therapies directly to malignant cells and tumors
- Help to diagnose malignant cells and tumors in the body
Oncolytic virus therapy
This form of immunotherapy targets cancer cells by using genetically modified viruses. The virus is injected directly into the tumor, where it then multiplies and kills the tumor. As the tumor releases antigens, it signals the immune system to attack any remaining cancer cells with the same proteins, all without affecting healthy tissue. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved a form of oncolytic virus therapy for melanoma treatment.
Similar to monoclonal antibodies, non-specific immunotherapies are designed to provide targeted immune treatment for cancer. There are currently two types of non-specific immunotherapies used in conjunction with radiation and chemotherapy in some cases:
Interleukins are a type of immune protein used to facilitate immune system responses. Certain types of interleukins have been produced in the lab (IL-2/aldesleukin/Proleukin) to help treat various forms of cancer including skin (melanoma) and kidney cancer.
Interferons work similarly to interleukins, helping the body to target and slow the growth of cancer cells. The most common type of interferon proteins currently produced in a lab are Roferon-A [2a] (interferon Alpha), Intron A [2b], and Alferon [2a].
As research and clinical trials continue, the potential for immunotherapy to expand and grow to treat more forms of cancer may grow as well. When used in combination with existing and proven cancer treatments like chemo, radiation, and surgery, treatments like immunotherapy can offer patients more options for treating tumors that may not be eligible for surgery, and with potentially less side effects than other cancer treatments. The ability to successfully destroy cancer cells without also damaging healthy tissue and organs makes treatments like immunotherapy more promising.
Learn more about immuniotherapy, please visit cancer.gov.
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Next, read Four Types of Benign Bone Tumors