The body is a beautiful and astounding mechanism. And thanks to many advances in modern medicine, we are able to help our bodies carry us through our daily lives. On occasion, we suffer physical setbacks like short term illnesses or minor injuries, but our bodies recover and become stronger. One modern therapy I’m passionate about is immunotherapy. Also known as biologic therapy, this is a type of cancer treatment designed to enhance the body’s own natural defenses against cancer. Immunotherapy uses materials from the body, or derived in a laboratory to improve, target, or rebuild immune system function.
Research has not been able to demonstrate how immunotherapy treats cancer, but it may be combatting the disease in a variety of ways. Immunotherapy may be fighting cancer by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, preventing cancer from spreading to other parts of the body, and, or helping the immune system work more effectively in destroying cancer cells. There are several types of immunotherapy available, this includes: monoclonal antibodies, non-specific immunotherapies, cancer vaccines, and oncolytic virus therapy. As we continue, I’ll explain their differences and the ways they help the body fight cancer.
Monoclonal antibodies are made in a laboratory, but before we get to that, let’s talk about antibodies. When your body senses something harmful, it produces antibodies; antibodies are proteins that fight infection from the inside. Monoclonal antibodies are proteins designed to attach to specific proteins within a cancer cell. This method is extremely specific, so these antibodies will not affect cells lacking the targeted protein. Monoclonal antibodies are used to fight cancer in the follow ways: facilitating the immune system in identifying and destroying cancer cells; delivering radiation directly to the cancer cells; helping identify and diagnose cancer cells; and carrying drugs directly to the cancer cells. As with many other medical treatments, there can be side effects, including rashes, low blood pressure, and flu-like symptoms like fever, chills, headache, weakness, and extreme tiredness, among others.
Non Specific Immunotherapy
Non specific immunotherapies function similarly to monoclonal antibodies because they can also aid the immune system in destroying cancer cells. There are two common types of non-specific immunotherapies. The first is interferons, which are made in a laboratory (like monoclonal antibodies) and help the immune system fight cancer, and may slow the growth of cancer cells. Interferons may induce side effects like flu-like symptoms, an increase in risk of infection, rashes, or thinning hair.
The other common non specific immunotherapy is the use of interleukins, which help the immune system create cells that destroy cancer. Non-specific immunotherapies can be given to patient after, or during, another cancer treatment. Interleukins may create side effects like weight gain, low and low blood pressure.
Cancer vaccines are also used to help the body battle disease. Vaccines expose the immune system to an antigen, which then triggers the immune system to recognize and destroy the cancerous protein, or related material. There are two kinds of cancer vaccines, preventative and treatment vaccines. Preventative vaccines are administered to persons without cancer symptoms. This is a preemptive measure taken to prevent an individual from developing a specific type of cancer, or another cancer-related disease. One well-known example of this is Gardasil, a vaccine administered to patients in order to prevent them from being infected with the human papillomavirus, also known as HPV. The HPV virus is known for causing cervical cancer, among other types.
Treatment vaccines help a patient’s body fight cancer by training the immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells. This treatment can prevent cancer from coming back, destroy remnant cancer cells (if used after other treatments), or stop cancer cell growth.
Oncolytic virus therapy is a newly developed type of immunotherapy, wherein genetically modified viruses are used to kill cancer cells. A doctor will inject a tumor with a virus, the virus will then spread to cancer cells and replicate itself. As the cancer cells are infected, the cells burst and die. Once a cell dies, it releases cancer antigens, then this antigen prompts the immune system to launch an attack on all cancer cells containing the same antigen. The cancer that is injected into the tumor will not enter or attack healthy cells. This is an extremely new therapy, and the first version of it was approved by the FDA in October of 2015. This oncolytic virus therapy is intended to treat melanoma with a genetically modified version of the herpes simplex virus known to cause cold sores. Researchers are currently in clinical trials testing other oncolytic viruses for other types of cancers.
If you are interested in immunotherapy, be sure to consult with your doctor before you enter any kind of therapy plan. Ask your doctor a variety of questions to ensure you cover all of your concerns. Ask him, or her, if there are clinical trials that you can participate in. Your body is built for survival, and these forms of immunotherapy can help you survive the battle against cancer. To learn more about immunotherapy options, see Cancer.net.