What is Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a broad term for therapies that focus on using the body’s own immune system to counteract the action of cancer cells. These are abnormal cells that divide rapidly and are capable of mutating or changing frequently, making it difficult for the immune system to defend the affected organs and systems. This type of cancer therapy involves the use of pharmaceuticals to signal the immune system about the presence and location of mutated cells. The immune system is triggered to search and destroy these cancer cells.

How the Therapy Works

According to the American Cancer Society, immunotherapies are designed to urge the body’s natural immune system to work harder and more efficiently to destroy existing cancer cells. Some therapies boost the body’s immune abilities in a broad way, but some protocols call for the introduction of manufactured proteins that mimic the properties of the natural immune system. Some of these therapies may be referred to as biotherapy or biologic therapy.

Think of the natural immune system as a security force that is always on duty to defend the body from anything foreign such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The immune system includes lymph nodes and white blood cells, including the T cells that fight infection and cancer cells. These cells are alerted to the presence of foreign bodies through chemical signals.

However, cancer cells do not naturally trigger the immune system because they are actually the person’s own cells that may have been normal at some point but have now gone rogue, mutated and behaving abnormally. Some cancer cells may be sending signals to certain receptors on immune cells to trick the system into accounting for these cells as normal. Drugs used in immune therapies disrupt these signals to expose the presence of abnormal cells and trigger an immune reaction. These substances may include cytokines, cancer vaccines and other proteins that can generate an immune response.

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Benefits of Immune System Therapies

Certain types of cancer, such as skin cancer, do not respond adequately to chemotherapy or radiation treatment. However, using this therapy in conjunction with traditional cancer treatments or as a sole treatment strategy has been found effective in disrupting the spread of cancer.

This therapy is gentler on the body because the drugs target the immune system instead of the entire body. That said, this treatment alternative may also be deployed along with chemotherapy to achieve maximum destruction and disruption of cancer cell growth.

The body may develop immune memory, which means the immune system is trained to recognize cancer cells even after the therapy is discontinued. The immune system is alerted when cancer cells recur so that necessary treatments can be introduced sooner to prevent the spread of cancer.

Types of Immune Therapies

Immune therapies can come in the form of cancer treatment vaccines that boost the body’s immune system to defend against the spread of cancer. These are not treatment vaccines. Another strategy is to introduce proteins known as cytokines to support the immune system. The Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, or BCG, is a treatment which involves the introduction of weakened tuberculosis-related bacteria to treat bladder cancer. Other applications of this therapy for other types of cancer are currently under review.

Immunotherapy is a promising cancer therapy that works with the body’s natural immune responses, ensuring fewer side effects compared to well-known cancer treatments. It has been found effective and productive in the treatment of various types of cancer.