Immunotherapy is a type of treatment for cancer whereby drugs are used to help the body’s immune system attack cancer cells. Drugs used in immunotherapy stimulates the immune system to work harder in order to detect and subsequently eliminate cancer cells more effectively.
It is regarded as a type of biological therapy which is a form of therapy that utilises substances created from living organisms to fight cancer.
What immunotherapy can do
- Because the immune system is so accurate in identifying germs and other harmful substances, it is able to recognise and specifically target unhealthy cancer cells while staying clear of normal, healthy cells. Immunotherapy can instruct the immune system to do this even more precisely and effectively.
- Immunotherapy is able to boost the immune system’s response to cancer cells and even allow it to adapt systematically to detect tumours and cancer cells even if they slipped detection previously.
- In cases where the cancer returns, the immune system is able to remember what the cancer looks like so that it can detect and fight it once again.
Types of immunotherapy
These are the main types of immunotherapy used to treat cancer.
- Adoptive cell therapy: the patient’s immune cells are taken, modified, and then reintroduced into the patient’s body. These modified immune cells then detect and fight cancer cells.
- Car T-cell therapy — Cancer-fighting T-cells are altered with chimeric antigen receptors (CAR), which are cancer-targeting receptors that facilitate in anti-cancer activity this is known as CAR T-cell therapy.
- Natural Killer cells (NKs) and tumour infiltrating lymphocytes (TILSs) can also be modified.
- Monoclonal antibodies: monoclonal antibodies are immune system proteins made in a lab that binds itself to targeted parts of cancer cells. These proteins are able to flag cancer cells to make them more visible to the immune system which will in turn destroy them. Monoclonal antibodies are also referred to as therapeutic antibodies.
- Cancer vaccines: designed with the intention of stimulating a response from the immune system to target cancer cells with tumour-specific or tumour-associated antigens, cancer vaccines are made from cells, proteins, viruses, bacteria, small molecules and DNA. The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, a preventive cancer vaccine, inoculates the body against an infectious disease that leads to certain cancers.
- Immunomodulators: these are substances that stimulates the immune system to release new responses or to enhance existing responses to detect and eliminate cancer cells. Some of these immunomodulators, antagonists, block pathways that suppress immune cells while others, agonists, stimulate pathways to activate immune cells.
Immunomodulator treatments include checkpoint inhibitors, cytokines, interleukins and interferon.
- Oncolytic virus therapy: viruses are modified in a lab that will infect cancer cells, leading them to self-destruct.
Advantages of immunotherapy
Boost the efficacy of other cancer treatments
The efficacy of other cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, may be bolstered when administered in tandem with immunotherapy.
May work for certain types of cancer
Some cancers, including skin cancer, do not react positively to radiation or chemotherapy, but may respond well to immunotherapy.
Cancer may be less likely to recur
Immunomemory means that the immune system will remember the cancer cells and will target and eliminate them should they return. This could mean that patients may be able to stay cancer-free after immunotherapy.
Less side effects observed
Immunotherapy is targeted at the body’s own immune system and does not affect any other cells.
Methods of administering
- Intravenous: this is done via an IV that is put into a vein.
- Intravesical: administered into the bladder.
- Topical: in a cream or gel
- Oral: in a capsule or pill
Possible Side Effects
The side effects of immunotherapy include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Flu-like symptoms like fatigue, chills, cold, fever.
- Weight gain, diarrhoea, swelling, heart palpitations, stuffiness, loss of appetite, shortness of breath.
- Bad reaction to the therapy which may lead to itchiness, redness, soreness or pain at the area where the medication is administered.
Is immunotherapy suitable for you?
There are still many clinical trials that are actively searching for more ways to engage the immune system to combat cancer. Immunotherapy may be used as a standalone treatment for cancer, or as a complementary treatment with other cancer treatments. You should discuss your options further with your doctor to decide on the best course of treatment for your condition.