Immunotherapy Awareness Month
Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that unleashes the power of a patient’s own immune system to fight his or her cancer. Decades and decades of research has provided us with immense scientific insight into our body’s immune systems and how it interacts with the cancer cells in the body. Getting the immune system to successfully fight cancer already present in the body; this is the “new territory” of oncology.
Our immune systems are remarkable at spotting and destroying the tiny elements not required by our body. But it is unable to do so because cancer has the ability get themselves recognized as system’s own part. This one trait is what makes cancer such a life-threatening and a unique disease. We cannot totally reorient our immune system in any way, but science is getting closer day by day.
June is the month of ‘Cancer Immunotherapy Awareness’, so let’s dive deeper into this ‘new territory’ of oncology which is still on its beginning steps and yet making huge leaps in the field of cancer treatments.
Let’s take a look at the different elements of immunotherapy:
● Oncolytic Virus Therapy – In oncolytic virus therapy, a genetically modified virus is put into a tumor, where the virus starts invading the essential cells and starts making copies of itself, causing the infected cell to eventually burst and die. When those cells die, they release antigens. The patient’s immune system immediately recognizes the antigens and then creates antibodies that would target all the cells with those same antigens. It is understandable that many may find the idea of injecting a virus into an already sick person to be unsettling, but the virus does not harm the patient. And this type of immunotherapy is already being used to treat patients with melanoma. the deadliest form of skin cancer.
● Cancer Vaccines – A cancer vaccine works in the same way that vaccines for smallpox or the flu do. The goal of a cancer vaccine is actually to ‘fool’ a patient’s immune system into thinking it is suffering a malignancy. Basically, these vaccines utilize the tumor-specific antigens to trigger the antitumor immune responses. In response, the immune system starts creating antibodies capable of killing off cancer before it even gets a chance to grow or to stop a cancer which may be underway or even to destroy any cancer cells which may have remained after the patient’s first-line treatment.
● Cytokine Therapies – In response to cellular stresses such as infections, inflammation and tumorigenesis, immune and non-immune cells release cytokines. Cytokines function as messengers to orchestrate cellular interactions and communications of the immune system. Perhaps one of the famous cytokines is interferon. It does not directly kill the cancer cells, but it rather modulates how the immune system responds to a threat, cancer or otherwise. However, scientists have now manufactured interferons using recombinant DNA to turn it into cancer therapies, such as interferon alfa-2a, also known as Roferon-A. It is used to treat hairy cell leukemia, HIV/AIDS-related Kaposi sarcoma and chronic myelogenous leukemia. Another type of cytokine found in the body is aldesleukin, which is oftentimes used as a cancer therapy for kidney cancer.
● BCG – BCG is short for Bacillus Calmette-Guerin. The idea of BCG is similar to that of oncolytic virus therapy, but in this technology instead of a virus, a bacterium is used. Currently this technology is used to treat bladder cancer. To treat it, a weakened form of the same bacteria which causes tuberculosis is inserted into the bladder of the patient. This causes the immune system to launch an immune response against the cancer cells.
Over a decade, the FDA has approved immunotherapies to treat more than 20 different types of cancer and even cancers with specific genetic mutations. Thanks to the constant development and advancement in the field of immunotherapy, it is not just used in combination with another line of treatment now, but it is also used as front-line therapy. Immunotherapy is now being given as the first course of treatment instead of the conventional chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Constant research is in place to make immunotherapy workable on all patients and cancers.