Understanding Immunotherapy As A Cancer Treatment
Being diagnosed with cancer was as much an emotional diagnosis as it was a physical diagnosis. It is impossible to be handed a diagnosis of cancer and not rack your brain to think about what choices I may have made in my life that may have contributed to the diagnosis. With the reflection and the second-guessing I did about my life and my choices also came a million questions about treatment. It’s a lot to take in at once, and treatment needs to target the whole person and not just the disease. With so many treatment options available, it can be difficult and overwhelming to decide the best way to tackle cancer. One emerging form is immunotherapy as a cancer treatment. It is quickly becoming a more mainstream treatment as a more natural therapy.
What is Immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy is a broad term for treatment that uses biological therapy. In other words, it uses substances made of living organisms to fight cancer within the body, calling on the body’s own immune system to fight off cancer. In order to understand more about immunotherapy, it helps to understand just a little bit more about how the immune system works.
Our immune systems are our body’s own natural defenses against illness. It is made up of different organs, cells, and proteins and is one of the most complex systems in our bodies. Our immune systems have two main parts: the innate and the adaptive.
The innate immune system provides general defense against invaders. Pathogens like viruses and bacteria are fought off by the innate immune system on a cellular level. Scavenger cells or killer cells are white blood cells that essentially eat pathogens.
The adaptive immune system is a bit more complex. Antibodies, which are made up of proteins, target specific pathogens that the body has already had contact with. This is how a lot of vaccines work and how our bodies then build up an immunity to certain types of diseases.
The innate and adaptive immune systems are complementary and work to fend off what it deems as harmful. Immunotherapy works to utilize the body’s own innate and adaptive immunity either through boosting the body’s natural defenses or through introducing other organisms that can help trigger an immune response to fight cancer.
Types of Immunotherapy
According to a July 2017 study, this type of treatment is most beneficial in certain types of melanoma, renal cell carcinoma, or leukemias because it is able to target cancer cells while sparing normal, healthy tissues and cells of damage associated with chemotherapy or radiation. However, there is a lot of research being done that suggests it will be an effective treatment for many other types of cancer, too. There are five main types of immunotherapy that may be used to treat different types of cancer.
Checkpoint inhibitors – these are drugs that help the immune system respond to a tumor. They block immune checkpoint molecules. Our own bodies don’t recognize cancer cells as foreign invaders, which is what allows cancer to grow. Checkpoint inhibitors remove that “recognition factor” of the immune system, which will then allow our own immune systems to target and attack cancer cells. A 2017 review calls checkpoint inhibitors the “most striking innovation in the clinical development of immunotherapy.” Although melanoma, renal cell tumors, and certain types of leukemia are currently the most responsive to checkpoint inhibitors, there is a lot of headway being made in the development of checkpoint inhibitors that are fully humanized, and clinical trials are underway for more types of checkpoint inhibitors. It’s actually very exciting and shows just how powerful and beautiful our own bodies can be when the right internal environment is offered!
Adoptive cell transfer – this treatment attempts to boost the natural ability of your T-cells (which are white blood cells that are part of your body’s immune system) to fight cancer. This type of cancer treatment uses a very customized approach. T-cells are taken directly from a tumor. The most actively growing cells are isolated and grown in a lab for several weeks before being re-introduced to the patient to fight cancer cells directly. It is essentially a custom-made cancer treatment that uses the strongest immune cells capable of battling certain types of cancer that is specific to each person and is along the cutting-edge of cancer treatment. A 2015 abstract has indicated that Adoptive Cell Transfer therapy has resulted in a complete regression in patients with melanoma and is capable of completely eliminating certain types of cancer in some patients.
Monoclonal antibodies – these are immune system antibodies which are customized in a lab and are designed to attach to specific proteins found in cancer cells. These proteins found in cancer cells are the ones that allow cancer cells to evade our immune systems. So by targeting and attaching to those specific proteins within cancer cells, our own immune systems can then recognize them as harmful invaders and trigger the immune system to respond to them. As of 2012, Monoclonal antibody-based treatment of cancer was recognized as the most successful therapeutic strategies for fighting hematologic malignancies and solid tumors in the past 20 years.
Treatment vaccines – treatment vaccines for cancer are different from, say, MMR or TDAP vaccines. Traditional vaccines are administered to generally healthy people. Treatment vaccines for cancer therapy are administered to those with certain types of late stage cancers. Cancer treatment vaccines specifically attack and destroy cancer cells while sparing normal, healthy cells. Treatment vaccines may very well be the cure for cancer most of us have thought of at some point. As of a 2014 study, the ability to identify cancer-specific antigens in people has been extremely limited. However, research is leading us closer to developing effective treatment vaccines. According to a March 2017 study, there are currently only two vaccines approved for cancer treatment. Both vaccines are extremely limited in their efficacy and therapeutic benefit. However, a number of different approaches toward the development of treatment vaccines for cancer show a lot of promise for the future.
Cytokines – these are proteins made by the cells of the body. They have an important role in the immune system’s ability to respond to cancer. The two main types of cytokines are interferons and interleukins. These cytokines act as messengers among the cells of the immune system. They stimulate immune cells at the tumor site and identify cancerous cells as harmful. A 2011 study is generating some excitement in terms of effectiveness of cytokines in combination with other immunotherapies. However as a standalone treatment, they have had low response rates and significant toxicities.
Bacillus Calmette-Guérin – also known as BCG, this is an immunotherapy that has been used to treat bladder cancer and uses a weakened form of the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. When it’s introduced to the bladder, it causes an immune response against cancer cells and is currently being studied with other forms of cancer. Currently, bladder cancer is the second most common cancer of the urinary tract and the fourth most common cancer among men. A study that was just published in January of 2018 suggests that BCG therapy, when used with nanotechnology, will provide an excellent new treatment option for people with bladder cancer.
Currently, immunotherapy is a fast-growing treatment for cancer. Although it isn’t used as frequently as radiation and chemotherapy, more oncologists and even more patients are insisting on using treatments that are less toxic and more biologically similar to our body’s own natural defenses. In the past decade, a lot of progress has been made toward identifying specific parts of the immune system that are responsible for identifying things that are harmful in our bodies. By understanding how this identification process occurs, researchers are expanding types of immunotherapies. Checkpoint inhibitors are leading doctors and scientists closer to a treatment and a potential cure for cancer. And this potential cure can be had without introducing toxic chemicals or toxic radiation to our bodies in the process.
I am wholeheartedly in favor of treatments that allow our bodies to do what they were designed to do. I live my life in a way that encourages my body to work in the most effective way possible. By nurturing my emotional, physical, and spiritual health as well as nourishing my body with wholesome and healthy habits, I create the ideal environment for my body to perform effectively. Introducing toxic treatments doesn’t align with what I have seen and experienced in my own journey. For me, a lot of traditional treatments seem to do more harm than good. Immunotherapy is something I am extremely fascinated with because it promotes the body’s own defenses with minimal outside interference or toxic chemicals or drugs. It makes sense to allow our bodies to do what they are meant to do naturally, but with a little nudge from science.