Chasing Away Childhood Cancer

Shining the Light on Immunotherapy: the Pros and Cons of Targeted Treatment

Our immune system is a complex network of biological processes designed to help protect our bodies from infection and or disease. White blood cells produced in our bone marrow are released into our blood, and act as weapons attacking and destroying the foreign bodies and mutations that cause illnesses such as cancer. Immunotherapy is a form of specialized treatment that works to kick start our natural immune system and strengthen its defense by targeting cancer cells and destroying them more efficiently. Unlike chemotherapy and radiation, which can sometimes cause damage to healthy cells, defense cells boosted by immunotherapy treatments work alongside healthy cells to target cancer cells and increase the bodies defense. This means that healthy cells stay healthy, and only foreign cells are attacked and destroyed.

The great thing about the human immune system is that once it has learnt how to fight and defeat a strain of a disease, a virus, or mutation it can easily defend against it again. Immunotherapy offers a long term solution by essentially training the body’s natural defense system to attack cancer cells even after treatment has been completed, meaning remission periods are often longer-lasting. The downside is that because cancer cells are a mutation of a cell found in every one of us, they also have this ability to learn. That’s why some patients become resistant to chemotherapy or radiation. While there are no guarantees, immunotherapy provides an alternative approach for patients who have exhausted traditional methods of treatment, often proving successful where chemotherapy or radiation have not worked.

There are different types of immunotherapy available and the type of treatment that can be offered is different for every patient. For example, checkpoint modulators prevent the cancer cells from blocking the activity of checkpoint proteins. Check point proteins regulate the antibodies that are released into our system, but certain types of tumors have been known to prevent them from working all together. Check point proteins essentially release the ‘brakes’ of our immune system regulators, allowing it to recognize and attack cancer cells more rigorously. Monoclonal antibodies are another form of immunotherapy. They are man-made immune system proteins that are injected into the body, and are designed to attack a very specific part of the cancer cells, essentially devouring the cancer cell from the outside, in. Tailor made vaccines are also an option to help boost defense cells in the body. The National Cancer Institute offers a wealth of information on how these various treatments work.

Immunotherapy can be a powerful tool when used on its own or in combination with other treatment therapies. It’s a less toxic alternative to help patients control their disease and in some cases cure it, but it is not without its side effects. This type of treatment essentially puts the immune system into overdrive. Where antibodies would normally be regulated by the body, this treatment approach is like slamming your foot onto the gas pedal. Side effects are different from patient to patient but can often include flu-like symptoms, fever, fatigue and rash. While these symptoms may not sound severe, it’s wise to recognize that the immune system has already been compromised by the disease, so could lead to more severe conditions such as autoimmune disease.

Studies have shown that some chemotherapy and radiation resistant strains of advanced melanoma and kidney cancer have responded well to immunotherapy, as well as certain forms of bladder cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer and lymphoma, to name a few. Research into the benefits of immunotherapy is ongoing but the results that have been seen so far have been promising. Advances in medical technology are shining the light on the search to find a cure and targeted treatments are leading the way into the future – a future that is both promising and bright.