As a parent of a child with cancer, you’re probably keeping close tabs on new cancer research. Over the past year, you may have heard about immunotherapy.
Deemed the 2016 “Clinical Cancer Advance of the Year” by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, immunotherapy could be a game-changer. It essentially involves the body’s own immune system in the fight against cancer.
The approach made headlines in 2015 when former President Jimmy Carter received immunotherapy for skin cancer that had spread to his brain. He also received radiation and surgery, and seven months later, he announced he was cancer-free, according to an ABC News report on March 7, 2016.
Doctors stressed that they couldn’t be certain it was the immunotherapy that sent President Carter’s cancer into remission. And they added that it’s not the right treatment for every cancer patient. Still, immunotherapy seems to hold great potential.
Here are more details about this intriguing research.
What Is Immunotherapy?
The immune system is the body’s natural defense system, protecting the body from illness. When that system isn’t functioning correctly, the body has a harder time fighting off diseases like cancer.
This is where immunotherapy steps in.
Immunotherapy (also called biologic therapy) uses the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), it uses substances either created by the body or manufactured in a laboratory to give the immune system that extra push.
How Does It Work?
Biological response modifiers are substances that the body produces to fight diseases like cancer. CureSearch explains that during immunotherapy, patients are given biological response modifiers to enhance the immune system’s power to find and destroy cancer cells.
Biological response modifiers in immunotherapy work in two ways:
- Active—they trigger the immune system to work harder and with more efficiency.
- Passive—they provide substances (like proteins) to supplement the immune system so it can be more effective.
Types Of Immunotherapy
There are several types of immunotherapy, and each one works in a unique way. According to ASCO, these types include:
- Monoclonal antibodies—therapy that targets the abnormal proteins in cancer cells.
- Non-specific immunotherapies—therapies that target the immune system so that it can better destroy cancer cells. These are often given after, or at the same time as, other cancer treatments, like radiation or chemotherapy.
- Oncolytic virus therapy—therapy that involves injecting genetically modified viruses into a tumor to kill cancer cells.
- T-cell therapy (also called chimeric antigen receptor [CAR] T-cell therapy)—therapy in which “fighter” cells called T-cells are removed from the blood, changed in a laboratory to have cancer-killing proteins called receptors, and put back into the body to find and destroy cancer cells.
- Vaccines—therapy in which patients get medication to either prevent cancer, or boost the immune system so that it can fight cancer.
Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors
At various points throughout the body, there are proteins that keep the immune system in check, according to the National Cancer Institute. They prevent it from going into “overdrive” and attacking healthy cells.
In some forms of cancer, the cancer itself “takes advantage” of these proteins. It uses them to stop the immune system from attacking cancer cells, as it should, the NCI explains.
Checkpoint inhibitors help reverse that problem. They free up the proteins to recognize and attack cancer cells, like they’re supposed to, the NCI says. The Food and Drug Administration has approved three such drugs so far, and more are in development.
Pediatrics And Immunotherapy
Immunotherapy has mostly been used in adults, but it’s making its way into pediatrics, particularly for treating neuroblastoma. And while it’s too soon to know the outcome, it seems to be effective so far. As is the case with most new treatments, it will be years before we know the true impact.
We also may be able to use immunotherapy alongside targeted therapy—a type of therapy where medications target specific genes in cancer cells.
A February 2016 study from the journal Seminars in Immunology found that combining targeted therapy and immunotherapy could be beneficial for cancer patients. Hopefully, these will be among many more breakthroughs to come in the treatment of childhood cancer.
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