What is Cancer Immunotherapy?

Cancer immunotherapy is an innovative cancer treatment to help use one’s own human body to  fight cancer cells. There are different types of immunotherapy including treatments that utilize antibodies to bind and inhibit the function of proteins in cancer cells; therapies that direct the immune system to attack tumor cells through specific targeting; and therapies that enhance existing anti-tumor responses in the body. Vaccines and CAR T (chimeric antigen receptor) cell therapy are types of immunotherapy that have shown positive outcomes in the treatment of various types of cancer.

Is it the Same as Chemotherapy?

Cancer immunotherapy is different from chemotherapy because chemotherapy ends up weakening the whole immune system with strong drugs, while immunotherapy stimulates the immune system to fight off cancer. The two treatments work very differently to attack cancer cells. Chemotherapy is the most common treatment which helps to prevent cancer from growing and spreading rapidly. This can unfortunately also mean that healthy cells are attacked, which can cause other issues in the body. Immunotherapy will help your immune system to become stronger by teaching it to recognize and attack harmful cells, leaving healthy cells alone.

Are There Side Effects to Immunotherapy?

There are possible side effects with every type of therapy. Side effects to immunotherapy that are common are: fever, chills, nausea, fatigue and loss of appetite. Most patients experience little to no side effects from immunotherapy. Side effects that are rare may include: heart damage, severe onset diabetes and severe allergic reactions. There is also the possible risk of experiencing cytokine release syndrome, neurologic toxicity recognition or anaphylaxis with CAR T cell treatment. Controlling toxicity has become a critical step in the successful application of CAR T treatments and medications to help prevent a cytokine release storm may be given with the immunotherapy treatment.

How it Helps Patients

Immunotherapy helps patients when their own immune system is too weak to fight off the cancer cells itself. With different types of immunotherapy available from cancer vaccines, CAR T cell therapies, to immune checkpoint inhibitors, and monoclonal antibodies – there are many more new immunotherapy methods to fight cancer. There are numerous immunotherapy treatments – some that work to boost your overall immune system, while others that work to attack specific areas such as cells in tumors. Each type of immunotherapy has its own benefits and risks. With new cancer treatments involving immunotherapy, scientists are hoping to have more treatments to help patients become cancer-free with fewer side effects.

Types of Cancer that Are Treated

Cancers which have been successfully treated for some patients using immunotherapy include: pediatric and adults with leukemia and lymphoma, melanoma and lung cancer.Investment and research being funded by organizations like Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy are now focused on applying immunotherapy for types of cancer such as glioblastoma, sarcoma, pancreatic cancer and other solid tumor types.

Strides That Were Made Recently and the Future of Cancer Immunotherapy

A huge advancement in cancer immunotherapy treatments occurred in 2017 when the FDA approved the first-ever cancer gene therapy treatment,  CAR T cell therapy, to treat pediatric leukemia. This treatment, pioneered by Dr. Carl June and his team at the University of Pennsylvania, uses CAR T cell therapy and genetically reprograms the patient’s immune cells to fight the cancer. The patient’s T cells are removed and genetically engineered in a lab. They are grown in large numbers with one objective: to kill the cancer cell. This is known as a “living therapy” with more than an 80 percent effective rate in patients. Super T cells are created and infused back in the body where they will multiply and attack the cancer cells, making the treatment even more effective.

The future of immunotherapy will continue to make advancements until cancer is a managed disease, and ultimately a thing of the past!