Immunotherapy is an umbrella term for different treatment options.
Immunotherapy is an FDA-approved treatment for cancer that has significantly improved outcomes for patients. Immunotherapy is actually an umbrella term for different kinds of treatment, according to oncologist Melissa Wilson, MD, PhD, of the NYU Langone Medical Center. Four commonly used types of immunotherapy include antibodies, vaccines, cytokines, and checkpoint inhibitors.
Antibodies are an active form of immunotherapy. They stimulate the natural immune system of the patient. Doctors introduce the antibodies through an IV, and the antibodies target a specific molecule on the surface of the cancer cell. The antibodies attach to this molecule, and then they signal to the immune system to attack this cell.
This helps the immune system—specifically the T cells that work to fight infections—attack the harmful cancer cells that it was previously not recognizing as a threat. (Learn more about the role of the T cells in fighting cancer with immunotherapy here.)
Vaccines are another type of immunotherapy that doctors use to keep cancer from recurring. After another form of treatment has successfully killed off cancer cells, doctors inject the immunotherapy vaccine with the intention of preventing future tumor growth. The vaccines work by helping the body develop antibodies to aid the T cells in recognizing and attacking future cancer cells. If the T cells can immediately kill off individual cancer cells, which are not necessarily a threat on their own, the cancer is less likely to spread and progress into a recurrence.
Cytokines are a signaling protein that the body already produces during any illness, even the common cold. Typically, the white blood cells produce these cytokines, but in immunotherapy, researchers can create cytokines in a laboratory and introduce them into the body of the cancer patient. Once in the body, the cytokines rev up the immune system and activate the T cells to attack foreign substances, such as the cancer cells.
Checkpoint inhibitors are the newest type of immunotherapy. This novel form of cancer treatment takes the brakes off the body’s immune system, according to Dr. Wilson. When the immune system experiences sustained activation, it begins to lose its effectiveness because the body wants to shut it off. (This is how many autoimmune disorders start.) As a result, the body triggers an “off switch” on the T cells, making them less likely to recognize and attack cancer cells.
However, checkpoint inhibitors can block these brakes, re-activating the T cells to continue fighting infections and foreign substances, such as cancer cells.
Although not technically a cure for cancer, different kinds of immunotherapy have proven to be more effective at treating certain kinds and stages of cancer than traditional methods. More research will continue to improve its effective and expand the types of cancers immunotherapy can treat.
Dr. Wilson is an assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, focusing on melanoma.
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Cancer immunotherapy is a global term and
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it really encompasses very different
types of treatment for cancer patients.
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Some of these immunotherapies include
antibodies, some of them include vaccines,
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some include cytokines and
some include checkpoint inhibitors.
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Antibodies are considered
active forms of immunotherapy.
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They are given to patients,
mostly through IVs.
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And these medicines and specifically,
this antibody is targeted
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to a particular molecule that sits
on the surface of a cancer cell.
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So this antibody recognizes this protein
or molecule and it binds to the cell and
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then it triggers the bodies immune system
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to then essentially kill
the cell with the immune system.
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So vaccines are another type of
immunotherapy that we use to treat cancer.
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In particular, it's used pretty much to
try to prevent cancer from recurring, so
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when patients who have had cancer.
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And have been effectively treated
with either surgery, radiation and or
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The goal is to prevent
the cancer from coming back.
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vaccines are injected into patients,
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just like we would administer any other
types of vaccine of like the flu,
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measles, mumps, rubella,
polio, things of that nature.
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So components of a particular cancer,
whether it's from a cancer cell,
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a cancer antigen, are injected into
patients with the thought that.
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That the patient's immune system will
develop antibodies against seeing these
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substances, so that if they ever return
the immune system gets started and
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acts against these cancer cells.
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And says hey, this is a bad thing
let me kill the cancer cells.
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So cytokines are another type of
immunotherapy that are used and
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these are substances that
are naturally produced by the body
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in order to activate
a patient's immune system.
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So these are produced in normal times when
patients get the cold, get the flu and
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get vaccines to rev up the body's immune
system to attack the foreign agent.
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And so sometimes they're used to, again,
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rev up a body's immune system
to attack the cancer cells.
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Generally, it's been used in
agilent therapy, so again, in ways
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to try to prevent tumors from coming back
or prevent the cancers from coming back.
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one cytokine in particular, IL-2,
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has been used, actually for
treatment of kidney cancer, and
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for treatment of melanoma prior to
the invent of the checkpoint inhibitors.
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So checkpoint inhibitors are the newest
members of immunotherapy for
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And these are novel in the sense that
they take the brakes off the body’s
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Inadvertent activation or sustained
activation of the immune system is sort of
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how patients develop autoimmune disorder.
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So the body wants a way to shut it off.
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And, the way it does that, is throughout
the different parts of the T cells,
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specifically of the immune system,
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there's a number of stop signs that get
used to turn the immune system off.
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And so checkpoint inhibitors actually,
block these stop signs.
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So essentially, rev up the bodies
immune system to keep going, and
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going to fight it and attack cancer cells.