This is how the groundbreaking new cancer treatment works.
Immunotherapy has revolutionized cancer treatment, targeting cancer growth more effectively than other treatments and improving survival rates for certain kinds of cancers. To understand how immunotherapy works as a cancer treatment, you first need to be familiar with how the immune system works.
The immune system includes T cells that recognize foreign molecules in the body, from minor infections to more dangerous cancer cells. What makes cancer so harmful to the body is that cancer cells can act like normal, healthy cells and go undetected by the T cells. Because T cells do not recognize the cancer cells as foreign, the cancer cells can continue dividing rapidly and spread throughout the body.
Immunotherapy is an umbrella term for a variety of methods that work with the immune system to help T cells recognize and target cancer cells more effectively, according to oncologist Melissa Wilson, MD, PhD, of the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. Types of immunotherapy include antibodies, cytokines, vaccines, and checkpoint inhibitors. Learn more about how these types of immunotherapy treat cancer here.
While chemotherapy treats cancer by attacking rapidly dividing cells indiscriminately, immunotherapy boosts the body’s immune system to recognize and target cancer cells. With immunotherapy, healthy cells are less likely to face attack in the process.
For certain types of cancer, such as late-stage melanoma, immunotherapy can offer the best chance for a cure. Compared to other treatments for cancer, immunotherapy also offers a more durable response, meaning the cancer is less likely to return. With many types of cancer, immunotherapy treatment is helping to prolong life and increase survival rates, even if immunotherapy isn’t technically “curing” cancer.
Dr. Wilson is an assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, focusing on melanoma.
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So our immune system is your
body's defense against any kind of
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foreign offender as well
as those that are internal.
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And so internally we worry about cancer.
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Immunotherapy compared to
other cancer therapies
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uses the body's immune system
to fight the cancer cells.
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And so some of the types of immunotherapy
that we use are antibodies and
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sometimes we use something called
cytokines, sometimes we use vaccines, and
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sometimes we use what's the newer
immunotherapies now, which are called
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checkpoint inhibitors, which actually
take the breaks off the immune system.
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Revving the immune system
up to kill cancer cells.
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I think one of the most
confusing things for
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patients is this realization that
immunotherapy isn't like standard
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treatment like they've
received in the past.
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So a lot of patients feel like this is
just like chemotherapy, and they're gonna
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have the similar side effects, where their
immune system is actually I'm weakened.
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And immunotherapy actually boosts
the patient's immune system to attack
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That offers the best chance of a cure and
or response to treatment
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as well as a durable response meaning that
the response we see with either tumor
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shrinkage or tumor completely disappearing
persists for a long period of time.
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And so with the advances we've had in
immunotherapy, we've actually been able to
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potentially start talking about that
with patients, or discussing that with
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patients in areas where we've
never been able to do that before.
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Immunotherapy by cancer type. New York, NY: Cancer Research Institute. (Accessed on June 29, 2017 at https://www.cancerresearch.org/we-are-cri/home/cancer-types.)
What is cancer immunotherapy? Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2016. (Accessed on June 29, 2017 at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/immunotherapy/what-is-immunotherapy.html.)