What is Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy or biological therapy is a form of cancer treatment that enhances the immune system’s ability to recognize, target, and eliminate cancer cells, anywhere they are in the body. Immunotherapy is a new method of cancer treatment. Immunotherapy can be given alone or in combination with other cancer treatments.

Every cancer type is unique, and immunology and immunotherapy are making an impact on each cancer in different ways. From the preventive vaccine for cervical and liver cancer to the first therapy ever proven to extend the lives of patients with metastatic melanoma, immunology has led to major treatment breakthroughs for a number of cancers. Immunotherapy has been approved in the United States and elsewhere as a first-line of treatment for several cancers and it may also be an effective treatment for patients with certain cancers that are resistant to prior treatment. 

Recently, this type of treatment has proved successful in increasing survival rates in people with certain types of cancer including metastatic prostate cancer and metastatic lung cancer. But Immunotherapy doesn’t always work for every patient, and certain types of immunotherapy are associated with side effects. Scientists are developing ways to determine which patients are likely to respond to treatment and which aren’t. As of December 2019, the FDA has approved immunotherapies as treatments for nearly 20 cancers as well as cancers with a specific genetic mutation and the first immunotherapy for breast cancer was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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What is Immunotherapy’s relationship to the immune system?

  • Immunotherapy helps the immune system to recognize, target and eliminate cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy provides the body with additional components to enhance the immune response

Immunotherapy can also be used in combination with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or targeted therapies to improve their effectiveness. Releasing the power of the immune system is a smart way to fight cancer:

  • The immune system is precise, so it can target the cancer cells exclusively and spares the healthy cells.
  • The immune system adapts continuously and dynamically, just like cancer does. Therefore, if a tumor manages to escape detection, the immune system can launch a new attack.
  • The “memory” of the immune system allows it to remember what cancer cells look like, so it can target and eliminate cancer in case it returns.

How does Immunotherapy work?

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that uses the body’s immune system to target and eliminate cancer cells. The immune system works by attacking substances in the body it doesn’t recognize that includes viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells. Cancer cells that are present is a big challenge, because they may not seem very different from normal cells to the immune system. Therefore, Immunotherapy helps the immune system work better to fight the cancer cells.

There are different types of immunotherapy which work in different ways. Some work by boosting your immune system to help it work better. Others give your immune system antibodies, to attack specific cancer cells.

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Research on treating Metastatic Breast Cancer:

Researchers have been looking at immunotherapy for metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer differs from one person to another, depending on where cancer has spread. Treatment can vary quite a bit and must be tailored to your needs. It focuses on preventing recurrences, reducing pain, and maintaining your quality of life. There are four types of immunotherapy that researchers are studying to treat metastatic breast cancer:

  • Checkpoint Inhibitors
  • Cancer Vaccines
  • Adoptive T Cell Therapy
  • Monoclonal Antibodies

What are Checkpoint Inhibitors?

The immune system has certain checkpoints that help to keep it from attacking normal cells in the body. These checkpoints can also weaken the immune system’s attack on cancer cells. Checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that prevent certain checkpoints from working that makes the immune response stronger. 

Pembrolizumab is an immune checkpoint inhibitor. It’s a type of immunotherapy that has shown results in the treatment of metastatic breast cancer. It works by blocking specific antibodies that make it harder for the immune system to fight cancer, allowing the body to fight back more efficiently. The FDA has approved several drugs for use in melanoma and metastatic lung cancer. Clinical trials on checkpoint inhibitors are in progress for people with metastatic or triple-negative breast cancer.

What are Cancer Vaccines?

Cancer vaccines work by stimulating a type of immunity that attacks and kills cancer cells. The first FDA approved cancer vaccine, sipuleucel-T (Provenge), was created for people with metastatic prostate cancer. This vaccine has been shown to increase the overall survival rate of people with metastatic prostate cancer.

Researchers are studying many vaccine strategies for breast cancer patients and some researchers believe that breast cancer vaccines may work best when combined with other therapies. Vaccines can take months to cause an immune response, so they may not be appropriate for very late-stage cancers. But they may still play an important role when used with other therapies. Research in this area is in progress.

What is Adoptive T Cell Therapy?

A T cell is a type of white blood cell that plays an important role in the immune response. Adoptive T cell therapy involves removing your T cells, modifying them to improve their activity, and then injecting them back in your body. Several research studies are in progress to test this approach in people with metastatic or triple-negative breast cancer.

What are Monoclonal Antibodies?

Monoclonal antibodies attack specific parts of a cancer cell. They are made in a laboratory and Monoclonal antibodies can work alone. They can also be “conjugated,” which means they can be joined to a radioactive particle or a chemotherapy drug. There are monoclonal antibodies available for the treatment of breast cancer. 

  • Trastuzumab (Herceptin) targets the HER2 positive protein, which is found on some breast cancer cells.
  • Ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla), a conjugated monoclonal antibody and is attached to a chemotherapy drug. It also targets the HER2 positive protein.
  • Pertuzumab (Perjeta) was FDA approved in 2017 Trusted Source for the post-surgery combination treatment of early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence. It’s a conjugated monoclonal antibody, and it can be attached to trastuzumab or other chemotherapy drugs. It targets the HER2 positive protein.

Researchers are currently studying more of other monoclonal antibodies as treatments for advanced breast cancer.

What are the Side Effects of Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is generally considered to have fewer side effects than other types of cancer treatment. Some people may still experience side effects. The possible side effects may include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Weakness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rashes

More serious effects can occur in the lungs, liver, kidneys, and other organs. The vaccines cause mild side effects. You will also experience injection site reactions, such as itching or redness. These tend to lessen with time. 

You can also consider taking part in a clinical research trial. Many of these trials are for people who have metastatic breast cancer and who are currently receiving other types of cancer treatment. Immunotherapy works by raising the body’s natural defenses to fight off cancer. 

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