Immunotherapy, also referred to as biological therapy, uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Unlike chemotherapy, immunotherapy often results in fewer short-term side effects. It is important to understand that the immune system’s primary role is eliminating pathogens and identifying malignant cells. Immunotherapies aim to treat cancer by removing the camouflage mechanisms that tumors develop. This treatment helps the immune system to detect, remove, and strengthen its defenses against cancer.

The immune system’s role in our body:

The immune system is composed of organs, unique cells and compounds that defend against diseases and infections. The key players in this system are Leukocytes, antibodies and cytokines which keep an eye on the abnormal cells in the body.

Immune cells and the compounds they produce travel through your body to protect against pathogens which can cause infections.  In some cases, they also help in preventing cancer. The immune system monitors the chemicals present in the body and becomes alert to foreign substances like pathogens or abnormal cells, which it may then attack.

For instance, certain proteins present in germs but absent from the human body are identified as foreign by the immune system, which then attacks them. Similarly, anything containing foreign substances like bacteria or cancer cells can be targeted with an immune attack.

Sometimes cancer cells may disguise themselves as normal cells which become difficult to detect and it is where immunotherapy helps.

How does the immune system find it difficult to detect cancer cells?

The immune system finds it challenging to attack cancer cells. It is because cancer begins when normal, healthy cells undergo changes or alterations and start multiplying uncontrollably. Even individuals with healthy immune systems continue to develop cancer, highlighting the limitations of the immune system in dealing with cancer on its own. Here are a few reasons why.

  • Tumor cells do not differ enough from normal cells, so the immune system may not recognize them as harmful.
  • The immune system may identify cancer cells, but the body may not raise a strong enough defense to eliminate the cancer cells.
  • Substances released by cancer cells can prevent the immune system from identifying and attacking them.

Scientists have discovered strategies for enhancing the immune system’s capacity to identify cancer cells and improve its defenses against them.

Immunotherapy treatment: Types

Immunotherapy is used to treat cancer in many different ways, many of which are being researched. Different types of immunotherapy are designed for specific types of cancer. Here are some common types:

  1. Checkpoint Inhibitors: It enables the body to identify and conflict with cancer cells and release the brakes on the immune system. The medications that block proteins in immune cells are called checkpoints.
  2. Cytokines- The therapy uses cytokines, small proteins that send signals between cells, to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer.
  3. Immunomodulators- These medications enhance specific components of the immune system to treat specific cancers.
  4. Monoclonal Antibodies (mAbs): Artificial versions of immune system proteins, mAbs can target specific areas of cancer cells, making them effective in treatment. And these treatments are similar to checkpoint inhibitors.
  5. CAR (Chimeric Antigen Receptor): This treatment modifies a patient’s T-cells, which are then combined with a unique virus that instructs the T-cells how to link to tumor cells enabling them to better locate, attack and destroy cancer cells. This type of cancer treatment is suitable for treating leukemia and lymphoma.
  6. Oncolytic viruses- These treatments use lab-modified viruses that infect and kill specific tumor cells.
  7. Cancer vaccines- Vaccines help the body fight diseases by training the immune system to destroy harmful germs and cells. They are particularly effective for small tumors or early-stage cancers. Currently, researchers are testing vaccines for treating various types of cancer and they are not yet widely used in clinical practices.
  8. Combination therapies: Multiple immunotherapies or integrating radiation therapy and chemotherapy with immunotherapy can enhance therapeutic efficacy, eliminate tumor cells and reduce side effects. However, more research is required to address some of the remaining challenges.

Post-treatment for Cancer:

Even after receiving treatment at the top cancer center, it is essential to ensure the blood counts recover completely and schedule routine check-ups for a few months. The best Oncology Hospitals in Namakkal recommend caution after immunotherapy treatment as some patients may experience a moderate decrease in blood cell production. If you previously underwent chemotherapy or external radiation before receiving immunotherapy, there is a risk of worsening or developing cytopenia. Therefore, it is important to consult with specialists before undergoing cancer therapies.

Conclusion: Immunotherapy is a beneficial area of cancer treatment that allows patients to use their immune system. Immunotherapy is expected to become more and more important in the fight against cancer as research progresses, bringing us closer to more individualized and effective treatments. Through proactive post-treatment care and staying up to date on immunotherapy advancements, patients can face their cancer journey with increased assurance and support.