What is immunotherapy and how can it treat cancer?
This course follows Shaundra as she learns about immunotherapy, a treatment that empowers her own immune system to fight cancer in her body.
Shaundra has been living with cancer for some time now. She has received chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which work by destroying rapidly growing cells.
Recently, Shaundra’s oncologist found that some cancer cells in her body escaped her previous therapies. She will need additional treatment.
Shaundra’s oncologist suggests a form of treatment called immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is different because it uses Shaundra’s own immune system to get rid of cancer cells.
Shaundra knows that her immune system normally fights bacteria and viruses so that she doesn’t get sick. But it can fight cancer, too.
Your body has many defenses against cancer. The immune system is an especially important one.
Now let’s look at the immune system. It is made of many different types of cells, known together as white blood cells. These cells team up against threats.
When a white blood cell recognizes a cell as cancerous, it sends signals to other white blood cells to come and help fight the cancer.
In Shaundra’s body, as in yours, white blood cells are always at work. They destroy cancerous cells or cells that are behaving strangely and that might cause cancer.
But cancer cells have ways to avoid being destroyed by the immune system. Cancer cells can mask themselves or hide so that white blood cells cannot detect them.
Cancer cells can also latch onto special proteins on the surface of white blood cells to weigh them down. This exhausts the white blood cells so that they are not able to fight.
Shaundra is scared to hear that cancer has exhausted her white blood cells. But her oncologist explains that with a little push by immunotherapy, they can be reenergized.
Now Shaundra worries that this immunotherapy could work too well. She learns that it’s possible for her white blood cells to start to attack some normal cells as well as cancer cells.
But Shaundra’s oncologist says that any side effects should be manageable if caught early. If she recognises that something isn’t quite right, she should tell her doctors quickly.
Let’s have a look at some immunotherapies that Shaundra’s oncologist thinks may help her body better fight and eliminate cancer cells.
The first type of immunotherapy that Shaundra’s oncologist considers is the use of antibodies to help Shaundra’s white blood cells fight cancer.
Antibodies are small proteins that stick to specific targets found on cell surfaces or in the blood. Each antibody binds a single target, like a key into a lock.
Antibodies normally bind to threats like microbes to stop them. But some antibodies can also act like shields on white blood cells, blocking cancer cells from exhausting them!
If Shaundra gets an antibody treatment, it should help free some of her white blood cells that are being weighed down by cancer cells. Now they can return to the fight.
Antibodies are being used in the clinic to treat many cancer types including breast and skin cancer. James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo were awarded a Nobel prize for discovering these antibodies!
Shaundra’s oncologist also suggests another immunotherapy that can power up more of her white blood cells to fight cancer. Together they decide to move forward with this treatment.
Shaundra has a huge amount of white blood cells in her body, but not all of them join the fight against cancer. This immunotherapy could wake more of them up to fight.
Shaundra’s oncologist together with cancer researchers take some of her blood, which contains white blood cells, and use it to grow copies of these cells in the lab.
Over many days, researchers take special care of Shaundra’s white blood cells to safely give them new cancer-fighting abilities.
Once ready, Shaundra receives a transfusion of her new powered up white blood cells. Doctors keep a close eye on Shaundra's health during the treatment.
Through close monitoring, Shaundra’s newly active white blood cells will be able to safely wake up more and more white blood cells to fight the cancer in her body.
During treatment, Shaundra comes down with a mild headache and fever. But with her oncologist, she decides that the side effects are very manageable.
Shaundra’s oncologist continues to keep an eye on her progress in case the cancer cells are able to hide from the immunotherapy.
Time will tell if Shaundra will need additional treatment. But for now the number of cancer cells in her blood tests are beginning to decrease.
Knowing that immunotherapy is giving her body a chance to fight the cancer has given Shaundra new hope.
- The immune system is a natural defense against cancer. It can recognize and eliminate cancerous cells.
- Through the use of immunotherapies, we can give the immune system the boost it needs to continue fighting cancer.
Continue for more reading and to meet our course reviewer.
What did you think of this course?
Mohamed C. Shahenkari
is a 42 year old EMT living in New Jersey. He is a drummer and enjoys listening to music and cooking.
Thanks to Mohamed for reviewing this course. Mohamed went through successful chemotherapy and radiation for squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue in 2018. But the cancer later appeared in his lungs.
Mohamed is now receiving a clinical trial immunotherapy drug at Memorial Sloan Kettering. It has been shrinking his lung cancer spots and keeping the cancer from spreading.
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