Your immune system’s job is to find foreign cells, like viruses or bacteria, and destroy them. In most people, the immune system does a great job of keeping you well and preventing serious diseases.
Unfortunately, your immune system doesn’t usually attack cancer cells. But immunotherapy, a type of cancer treatment, can change that, helping your own body fight cancer.
What is immunotherapy?
The goal of immunotherapy is to help your body’s immune system be more effective in finding and destroying cancer cells.
“Over the past 20 or 30 years, researchers have found new ways to use immunotherapy,” says Ziad Skaff, M.D., an oncologist at Roper St. Francis Physician Partners Lowcountry Hematology & Oncology. “Though it still isn’t as widely used as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, it can still be an effective tool to fight cancer.”
Because cancer treatment is so personalized to you and your cancer cells, only your doctor can tell you when and what immunotherapy is right for you. You might receive it before surgery or after surgery. You might receive it with chemotherapy or by itself.
While immunotherapy does offer new treatment options, it still can have side effects, like a rash, diarrhea or flu-like symptoms. You should always tell your doctor about any side effects you have with your treatment.
What are the types of immunotherapies?
Each kind of immunotherapy works differently. Some of the common types include:
- ● Immune checkpoint inhibitors allow your immune system to react more strongly to cancer cells. Your body normally has “checkpoints” that keep your immune system from overreacting. ICIs remove these checkpoints so your immune system can work harder.
- ● T-cell transfer therapy uses your own immune cells to fight cancer. Your doctor first removes immune cells from your tumor. Once they know which cells are fighting the cancer the hardest, they grow more of these cells in a lab and then inject them back into your body. All of the cells used are your own cells.
- ● Monoclonal antibodies are proteins made in a lab. When you are given these antibodies through an infusion, they bind to cancer cells and act like a waving red flag for your immune system. Your immune system then knows the cancer cells are bad and starts fighting them.
- ● Cancer treatment vaccines are made using your own cancer cells and are specific to you. They are injections that help your immune system recognize and fight cancer cells in your body.
- ● Immune system modulators are medicines that boost your immune system so it can fight cancer cells. They can also activate immune cells to fight cancer or use immune cells to prevent tumors from growing new blood vessels.
Can immunotherapy treat all types of cancer?
Researchers are finding new ways to use immunotherapy for almost every type of cancer, but that doesn’t mean it is right for every patient.
“We use immunotherapy for certain types of cancer more than others,” says Dr. Skaff. “It often offers hope to people with advanced cancer, like stage IV lung cancer.”
Your doctor might recommend immunotherapy if you have:
- ● Bladder cancer
- ● Brain cancer
- ● Breast cancer
- ● Cervical cancer
- ● Colon cancer
- ● Head and neck cancer
- ● Kidney cancer
- ● Liver cancer
- ● Lung cancer
- ● Leukemia
- ● Lymphoma
- ● Ovarian cancer
- ● Prostate cancer
- ● Skin cancer
As research continues, this list may grow and immunotherapy may be used more and more often to help patients live a longer, healthier life.
Call today for an appointment
For more information on immunotherapy or to schedule an appointment with a Roper St. Francis Healthcare oncologist, please call (843) 402-CARE or visit rsfh.com.
COVID-19 and Immunotherapy
You might have heard of one type of immunotherapy in the news: monoclonal antibodies. That’s because monoclonal antibodies have been part of COVID-19 treatment since almost the beginning of the pandemic.
The monoclonal antibodies used to fight COVID-19 attach to the spike protein on the virus cells. When they attach, they prevent the virus from entering your own healthy cells so your immune system has time to destroy the virus before it hurts you.
Right now, monoclonal antibodies are typically used in people with mild to moderate COVID-19 who aren’t hospitalized. They help reduce the risk of hospitalization and help prevent the infection from getting worse. If you are at high risk of severe COVID-19 infection, you might also be able to receive monoclonal antibodies if you have been exposed to the virus.
As researchers learn more about monoclonal antibodies, they might be used to help fight other viruses, like the flu, and save more lives.