A Straightforward Guide to How Immunotherapy Works

Cancer immunotherapy is a relatively new category of precision medicine that helps the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells. Although scientists have spent decades figuring out ways to stimulate the body’s immune system to eradicate cancer cells, most immunotherapies that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved have only been in use in the country for less than ten years (as of 2021).

Scientists continue to make advancements in immunotherapy for cancer, and as we discover more breakthroughs, the hope is that its uses and effectiveness will improve. Until then, understanding how immunotherapy works can help you make an informed decision about your cancer treatment.

First, how does the immune system work?

The immune system is your body’s natural defense mechanism. It protects your body from infections and diseases, keeping you as healthy as possible.

The immune system serves its purpose is by detecting and eliminating harmful substances, including bacteria and viruses. When your immune system encounters a foreign substance (an antigen), it produces antibodies to either fight infection directly or to recruit other cells and proteins, such as the T-cells (T lymphocytes), to destroy the antigen. Antibodies remain in the body, allowing the immune system to recognize and attack that antigen if they cross paths again in the future.

Why do you still get sick if the immune system protects you?

The immune system malfunctions sometimes. For example, it can mistakenly classify normal cells as a threat, therefore resulting in an autoimmune disorder. Rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and diabetes mellitus are some of the most common autoimmune diseases in the U.S. Some of these ailments can even increase the risk of cancer development.

In the case of cancer, when your immune system fails to identify cell mutations associated with malignancy as dangerous, those cells grow and multiply, forming tumors and, in some instances, invade other areas of the body (metastasis).

So, how does cancer immunotherapy work?

If cancer outsmarts the immune system, it’s almost like the immune system fell asleep on the job. Immunotherapy works by waking up the immune system and informing it that those cells are a threat. Once the immune system acknowledges that something dangerous is in the body, it activates itself and releases powerful T-cells to destroy the malignant cells.

What are the types of immunotherapy for cancer?

From checkpoint inhibitors to vaccines, learn everything about the most common immunotherapy treatments for cancer here.

What are the benefits of immunotherapy?

Compared to conventional techniques like chemotherapy and radiation, there are more immunotherapy benefits, which include:

  • Far less immediate and long-term side effects
  • Being able to continue treatment on a long-term basis without impacting good quality of life

Conventional treatments may cure some malignant diseases, however, as many of us know, they sometimes cause long-term side effects. Peripheral neuropathy, lung damage, heart problems, hormone dysfunction, surgical complications, and cognition problems are some of the many side effects you may experience with high-dose chemotherapy and other mainstream protocols. Furthermore, these therapies may compromise your immune system in the long run, leading you to fall ill more often or develop cancer again (whether in the same area or a different part of the body) in the future.

Meanwhile, immunotherapy for cancer causes fewer immediate and long-term side effects. These include: 

  • Fatigue
  • Rash
  • Diarrhea
  • Autoimmune response

In cancer patients who respond positively to immunotherapy, the advantageous effect lasts longer than with chemotherapy or radiation therapy. If, for instance, immunotherapy works for you, then treatment may continue on a long-term basis, which will allow your doctors to manage your disease similar to a chronic disorder. Though your cancer may not perish entirely, the right immunotherapy for you can help keep it under control and prolong your life.

Can immunotherapy treat all types of cancer?

Currently, the U.S. FDA has not approved immunotherapy treatment for all forms of cancer. Researchers must first prove that a new treatment is as effective or potent as the greenlit options, as well as safe, before the FDA can approve its use. However, it’s important to know that there are more immunotherapy options available outside of the United States. Therefore, remember to do your research before finalizing your treatment, as the right immunotherapy for you could be approved elsewhere.

In general, immunotherapy treats several cancer types, including but not limited to:

Depending on the cancer type, immunotherapy may also be combined with conventional treatments.

Who is a candidate for immunotherapy?

An oncologist can determine whether immunotherapy is right for you depending on the type and stage of your cancer, any biomarkers that your disease reveals, and, in the U.S. in particular, whether current cancer treatment guidelines support immunotherapy for your case.

In general, you may be a candidate for immunotherapy if:

  • The results of your genomic test reveal that you are positive for PD-L1 expression, high tumor mutational burden, or high microsatellite instability. Learn more about genomic testing here.
  • You have advanced cancer. If conventional treatments are not working for you, a clinical trial studying the efficacy of an immunotherapy drug on your specific cancer type or on the genetic markers recognized in its DNA might accept and treat you.
  • You have non-small cell lung cancer. This cancer, along with melanoma, is one of the first malignancies that the FDA approved for immunotherapy treatment. Genomic testing is part of the guidelines for this cancer. A 2020 study shows that patients with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer who respond to immunotherapy are surviving longer. Some patients have been on maintenance doses for a long time.

What should you do if you’re interested in immunotherapy?

If you are eager to know whether immunotherapy is an appropriate treatment option for you or a loved one, call us at 480-666-1403 or chat with us online to schedule a consultation. The medical team here at New Hope Unlimited specializes in a combination of conventional and alternative treatments for over 200 cancer types. Treating your disease and improving your quality of life is part of our mission.

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