Our body is essentially made up of tiny particles called cells. These cells actively divide in a controlled manner. It is the aggregation of numerous cell divisions that lead to growth and development. However, when the cells reproduce themselves in an uncontrollable or undesirable manner, cancer arises. Every patient diagnosed with cancer desires freedom from the excruciating pain and long-suffering that comes along with the often life-threatening disease. Various treatment options are available to either manage or completely cure cancer and immunotherapy is one of the more popular and most promising interventions in recent times. Leading research institutions are working on discovering new ways to fight cancer with immunotherapy.
What is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that utilizes the body’s own defense mechanism in the fight against diseases. Immunotherapy has proven useful in many disease conditions but its benefit in the treatment of otherwise unmanageable cancers is widely explored these days. The whole idea behind immunotherapy is not to develop drugs that are capable of fighting disease-causing agents or diseased cells on their own. Rather, immunotherapy seeks to develop drugs that would enhance the ability of the body’s natural immune system to adequately combat diseases. The practice of using immunotherapy for cancer treatment makes a lot of sense because of the numerous side effects of drugs designed to destroy malignant cells. If the immune system is empowered to take charge of the fight, there is the promise of greater selectivity. Normal body cells would be spared and the side effects from using such drugs are expected to be much less.
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How Immunotherapy works
The basic idea behind using immunotherapy for cancer treatment has been explained above. But, there are a couple of ways by which this can be achieved.
- Stimulating the body’s natural immune system to better identify cancerous cells and empowering the immune cells to fight them better.
- In other cases, immunotherapy cancer drugs provide immune system components for the body. The components are usually synthetic proteins.
Types of cancer immunotherapy
- Monoclonal antibodies: These are antibodies that are synthesized in the laboratory. They are trained to be able to identify a specific part or gene present in only the cancerous cells and attack them with precision.
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors: These drugs empower the immune system to employ maximum force in the fight against cancerous cells. Think of it as ripping the brakes off a car. Examples of checkpoint inhibitors are; Avelumab, Nivolumab, Atezolizumab etc.
- Cancer vaccines: When we hear vaccines, the first thing that comes to mind is infections. But the importance of vaccines does not stop there. Cancer vaccines are administered usually to help prevent and sometimes treat some types of cancer.
- CART therapy: In this therapy, the T-Cells from a patient’s blood is harvested and modified to specifically recognize cancerous cells. The modified T-cells are grown into large numbers in the laboratory then transfused into the patient.
- Non-specific immunotherapies: Some techniques of immunotherapy for cancer treatment work by boosting the immune system generally. They are usually administered alongside other drugs used for cancer treatment. The common examples of non-specific immunotherapy drugs include; Interferons and Interleukin.
How is immunotherapy administered?
Although there are different types of immunotherapy and they usually have their distinct features, there seems to be a simple answer to the question ‘how is immunotherapy administered’. All the known immunotherapy cancer drugs are administered intravenously or into the skin. Although research has shown that cancer patients tend to prefer oral therapies, the nature of these drugs makes it almost impossible to formulate them as orally administered preparations. Depending on the type of cancer being treated, immunotherapy may be administered alone or alongside other cytotoxic agents.
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Immunotherapy side effects
Although one of the major benefits of immunotherapy is the promise of milder side effects, it does not mean they do not cause any side effect. Serious side effects may be experienced sometimes because certain types of immunotherapy do not spare healthy cells. What is known, though, is that the frequency and severity of immunotherapy side effects are generally lesser and milder when compared with other interventions employed in the treatment of cancer. Below are some of the immunotherapy side effects a patient may experience. Needless to say, the frequency and severity would depend on the specific drugs the patient is using.
- Skin reactions
- Symptoms of flu such as fever, chills, fatigue, nausea, weakness etc.
- Swelling of the hands or legs
- Blocked airways
- Difficulty in breathing
- Hormonal changes etc.
Although the field of immunotherapy is already widely explored, the medical research community still believes there is a whole lot of potential waiting to be unlocked. Research is ongoing in numerous centers and laboratories and patients are being enlisted in different immunotherapy clinical trials on a regular basis. If there is any field with the hope of a total cure for cancer, it has to be immunotherapy.