The human body normally runs like a well-oiled machine. It is able to activate muscles and run repairs without a conscious thought. One of the truly fascinating components of the human body is the immune system. The immune system is able to identify potentially harmful foreign matter and destroy it. The immune system keeps the body healthy and safe.
Because of this quiet but significant work, many researchers over the past thirty years have been asking how the immune system can work to combat cancer. What they have found has very recently come to epitomize what is often referred to as the future of cancer treatment. In recognition of June as Immunotherapy Awareness Month, let’s look deeper!
Put simply, immunotherapy has evolved into a major ally in battling cancer. This wide-ranging form of treatment is administered by medicines that help the immune system identify and attack cancer cells. As the immune system is a complex network, there are several ways in which it has been used to target cancer cells, including vaccines and oncolytic virus therapy. In simple terms, immunotherapy often introduces antibodies, bacterium or viruses to a patient’s body in order for the immune system to recognize the threat. Once the immune system recognizes the introduced threat, it is able to build a robust defense against it.
While chemotherapy and radiation therapy are the more commonly known cancer treatments, one’s immune system offers several potential advantages when compared to traditional disease management. These include:
- Potential for Universal Treatment. Since immunotherapy does not target a specific tumor like that of chemotherapy, it leaves the possibility to treat all kinds of cancer. Indeed, it is currently used for over 20 types. Immunotherapy has even been successful in treating patients with certain cancers that have been resistant to chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
- Long Term Remission. When training the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells, immunotherapy is also writing the enemy cell composition to memory. This means that if the cancer is to return at any time in the future, the immune system will recognize the threat and again seek to destroy it. The immune system is even capable of adapting to changes in the enemy cells and fight off both the original and the evolved forms.
- Unharmed Healthy Cells. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are known to harm healthy cells in the process of destroying cancer cells. Harming healthy cells often results in side effects such as hair loss and nausea. The immune system is less likely to target normal, healthy cells. (This does not mean that immunotherapy will not have its own side effects—oftentimes severe. These will likely vary based on which treatment is used.)
- Preventative Measures. Immunotherapy also offers the possibility to create preventative vaccines for cancer cells. For example, there is currently a vaccine for cervical cancer that targets proteins made by the human papillomavirus (HPV), the leading cause of cervical cancer worldwide. Researchers are seeking to develop other cancer-preventing vaccines.
Such NFCR researchers as Wayne Marasco, M.D., Ph.D., Paul Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D., and Laurence Cooper, M.D., Ph.D., are excelling in this dynamic field. And this spring will see our Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research being delivered to Steven Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., arguably cancer immunotherapy’s foremost figure. The 2018 Szent-Györgyi Prize was awarded to the aforementioned HPV vaccine’s creators. Especially through donor support, additional breakthroughs await!