The term “immunotherapy” covers a wide variety of treatments that use the natural defensive abilities of the human immune system to fight diseases. The following are frequently asked questions on immunotherapy, our immune system and how it all works to provide better outcomes in cancer treatment.
How does the immune system work?
Our immune system is a complex array of defenses that evolved to protect our bodies from foreign invaders. Infectious organisms such as bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses all have specific molecular targets called “antigens,” which are recognized by the immune system. But allergens (like pollen) and foreign proteins (from improperly matched transfusions, transplants, or biological medicines) can also serve as antigens that trigger an immune response.
How does cancer fool the immune system?
Cancer is a genetic disease. It occurs when damaged DNA sends out faulty signals along one or more biomolecular pathways, causing tumor cells to grow out of control. Because the invasion of tumor cells is homegrown rather than foreign, an immune response is often not effectively triggered. In some cases, despite antigens present on growing tumors, the immune response is not strong enough to destroy the cancer. In addition, cancers have developed defenses of their own. For example, some cancers can secrete the precise chemicals that signal our bodies to shut down the immune response.
To further complicate matters, the immune system remains vigilant if we attempt to introduce healthy tissue from another person that is intended to help patients fight their cancer. Treatments such as bone marrow transplants must pay strict attention to tissue compatibility. Otherwise, the body will mount an immune response—in effect, rejecting the cure while protecting the disease.
What is immunotherapy?
The term “immunotherapy” covers a wide variety of treatments that use the natural defensive abilities of our own immune system to fight diseases. The immune system made up of white blood cells, organs and tissues of the lymph system, helps the body fight infections and other diseases. Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy, which uses substances made from living organisms to treat cancer.
How does immunotherapy work?
Cancer is capable of hiding from the immune system and even using it to support tumor growth. The goal of immunotherapy is to wake up the immune system so that it recognizes cancer and attacks the disease—just as it does with most bacteria or viruses.
Is immunotherapy new?
Many of the key elements of immunotherapy have been around for decades. In fact, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance has known the promise of immunotherapy ever since Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation began more than 40 years ago.
However, the last decade has seen an explosion in the number, type, and effectiveness of immunotherapies.
Are there different types of immunotherapy?
There are five types of immunotherapy currently in use at SCCA: bone marrow transplants, T cell therapies, antibody therapies, vaccines, and cytokines. In many cases, these therapies are used in combination to attack cancer on multiple fronts.
How effective is immunotherapy?
Please keep in mind that immunotherapy therapies are not yet available for all types of cancer and, where available, they are effective only for a percentage of patients. But optimism remains that these options will become more widely available as physicians and researchers find more ways to apply these therapies to treatment plans.
If you are a patient or helping advise a cancer patient, we hope this information will enable you to ask good questions and have a more productive conversation with your provider or care team.
How can I get immunotherapy as part of my treatment?
Immunotherapy is not yet as widely used as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. However, immunotherapies have been approved to treat people with many types of cancer. To learn about immunotherapies that may be used to treat your cancer, ask your provider and care team.