Can Immunotherapy Be Of Benefit To Cancer Patients?

Immunotherapy is fast gaining importance as a promising new strategy that uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer, in the same way that the body would fight any other foreign invader. This can be done by enhancing, suppressing, or stimulating the immune system to work harder to destroy the cancer cells or by giving man-made immune system proteins to fight cancer. One of the most recent advances in cancer therapy, immunotherapy can not only help to treat many different types of cancer, but is also effective against some cancers that are resistant to traditional treatment. The American Cancer Society’s Cutting Edge Cancer Series literature calls it a “rapidly evolving type of treatment that has the potential to be more effective – and in some cases less toxic – than many of today’s existing options.”1

Types Of Immunotherapy

Many different types of immunotherapy are used to treat cancer. They include:

Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors

Immune checkpoints help destroy cells which the body sees as “foreign.” Cancer cells sometimes find

ways to use these checkpoints to avoid being attacked by the immune system. Blocking the activity of immune checkpoint proteins helps release the “brakes” on the immune system, increasing its ability to destroy cancer cells.2

Monoclonal Antibodies

Monoclonal antibodies are man-made versions of immune system proteins. These antibodies are very specific in their action as they target a particular part of a cancer cell and helps to destroy these cells.3

Cancer Vaccines

Though not widely used yet, cancer vaccines take the form of prevention vaccines or treatment vaccines. As of now, only one cancer treatment vaccine has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is used for advanced prostate cancer in patients who no longer benefit from hormone therapy.45 Vaccines for various types of cancer, such as that of the bladder, lung, kidney, cervix,

and breast, to name a few, are works in progress.

Non-specific Immunotherapy

These treatments do not target the cancer cells directly but boost the immune system in a general way, thereby helping it to attack cancer cells.6

Benefits Of Cancer Immunotherapy

Helps to Treat Many Different Types of Cancer

Immunotherapy helps the immune system identify and target different types of cancer cells. It is currently being used or studied for a wide variety of cancer types such as bladder, brain, colorectal, lung, gastric, breast, ovarian, kidney,  cervical, prostate, and skin cancer, among others. Monoclonal antibodies, the most extensively used form of cancer immunotherapy, is an approved treatment for several kinds of lymphoma and leukemia, along with some types of head, neck, breast, and colorectal cancers.7

Effective Against Cancers That are Resistant to Traditional Treatments

Cancer immunotherapy is effective against many types of cancers even when traditional treatments such as

chemotherapy and radiation treatment have failed ‒ in melanoma, for instance. According to oncologist Catherine Diefenbach of the NYU Langone Medical Center, immunotherapy is “providing options for people out of options.”8 Research also suggest that partnering immunotherapy with chemotherapy may have great potential in improving treatment outcomes.9

Offers the Possibility of Long-Term Cancer Reduction

Immunotherapy can “train” the immune system to remember cancer cells. This developed memory of the immune system may result in a longer-lasting response, helping in making this condition manageable and preventing it from getting worse. Various clinical studies on long-term overall survival with immunotherapy has yielded durable responses that show it is able to prevent the spread of cancer from one part of the body to another, especially in patients with rapid spread of cancer for whom no other treatment was effective.10

Minimal Side Effects as Compared to the Conventional Cancer Treatments

Cancer immunotherapy is more focused on the immune system than conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation are. So it does not cause the same side effects as these treatments. Side effects such as nausea, hair loss, and vomiting, commonly observed in chemotherapy and radiation treatment,  may be less likely with immunotherapy. There are, however, chances of other  side effects (flu-like symptoms, weight gain, sinus congestion, diarrhea, swelling, heart palpitations etc) which will vary depending on the type of immunotherapy used.111213

In the last few decades immunotherapy has become an important therapeutic approach in treating various types of cancer. Ongoing research on newer types of immune treatments will have an impact on how cancer is treated in the future. For many, it may very well be the much-awaited breakthrough that slays the demons of cancer.