Cancer Immunotherapy: Harnessing the Power of the Immune System to Fight Cancer

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June 12, 2023
Cancer Immunotherapy

In recent years, cancer immunotherapy has emerged as a groundbreaking approach in the field of oncology, revolutionizing the way we think about cancer treatment. By leveraging the body’s own immune system, this innovative therapeutic strategy has shown remarkable potential in the fight against cancer. Let’s delve into the realm of cancer immunotherapy, exploring how it works, its effectiveness, and some of the most significant advancements in this field over the past decade.

What is Immunotherapy?

Cancer immunotherapy encompasses a diverse range of treatments designed to stimulate and enhance the body’s immune response against cancer cells. Unlike traditional cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, which directly target and destroy cancer cells, immunotherapy focuses on activating and strengthening the immune system itself to recognize and eliminate cancer cells.

Immunotherapy Uses in Cancer Treatment

Checkpoint Inhibitors. One of the most successful forms of cancer immunotherapy is checkpoint inhibitors. Cancer cells can evade immune detection by expressing proteins on their surface that act as “checkpoints,” dampening immune responses. Checkpoint inhibitors block these proteins, unleashing the immune system to attack cancer cells more vigorously. The development and approval of immune checkpoint inhibitors, such as pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo), have transformed the treatment landscape for several types of cancer including triple-negative breast cancer, metastatic melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, and advanced bladder cancer.

CAR-T Cell Therapy. Another breakthrough in cancer immunotherapy is chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy (CAR-T). This approach involves genetically modifying a patient’s T cells, a type of immune cell, to express receptors that can recognize specific cancer cells. These modified T cells are then reintroduced into the patient’s body, where they multiply and launch a targeted attack on cancer cells. The approval of CAR-T cell therapies, like Kymriah and Yescarta, for the treatment of certain blood cancers, including acute lymphoblastic leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, has been a groundbreaking advancement. These therapies have shown remarkable success in patients who have exhausted all other treatment options, offering new hope for those with limited therapeutic alternatives.

Tumor-Infiltrating Lymphocytes (TIL). TIL therapy involves extracting immune cells from a patient’s tumor, growing more of them in the laboratory, and then infusing them back into the patient. This approach has demonstrated impressive results in treating metastatic melanoma, with some patients experiencing complete and long-lasting remission. It also has applications in treating head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, lung cancer, genitourinary cancers, and more.

Personalized Vaccines. Advancements in genomics and immunology have paved the way for personalized cancer vaccines. These vaccines are tailored to target specific mutations present in a patient’s tumor, stimulating an immune response against those specific cancer cells. Early studies have shown promising results, raising hope for the future of cancer immunotherapy, where each patient’s treatment can be customized based on their individual tumor profile.

Combination Therapies. Researchers are exploring the synergistic effects of combining different immunotherapies or combining immunotherapy with other treatment modalities like chemotherapy or radiation therapy. By targeting multiple pathways and stimulating various aspects of the immune system, combination therapies have shown enhanced effectiveness and improved response rates in certain cancers, such as metastatic melanoma and lung cancer.

Biomarkers for Treatment Selection. A biomarker is a measurable characteristic or indicator that is used to evaluate biological processes, disease conditions, or response to therapy. Biomarkers can be molecules, such as proteins, nucleic acids, or metabolites, as well as specific cells or imaging features. These measurable indicators provide valuable information about the presence, severity, progression, or treatment response of a disease. Identifying reliable biomarkers that can predict the response to immunotherapy has been a major focus of research. These biomarkers help guide treatment decisions, ensuring that patients who are most likely to benefit from immunotherapy receive the appropriate treatment.

Adoptive Cell Transfer. Adoptive cell transfer (ACT), also known as cellular immunotherapy, is a promising approach in cancer immunotherapy that involves collecting and modifying immune cells from a patient, typically T cells, to enhance their ability to recognize and kill cancer cells. This approach has shown remarkable success in treating certain types of leukemia, lymphoma, and solid tumors, with ongoing research focused on optimizing ACT strategies. ACT can also involve genetically engineering immune cells via gene therapy to enhance their cancer-fighting capabilities. TIL and CART-T cell therapy are both forms of ACT. Others include engineered T cell receptor (TCR) therapy and Natural Killer (NK) cell therapy, where immune cells are equipped with new receptors that allow them to target specific cancer antigens.

The Future of Immunotherapy

Many clinical trials currently underway focus on immunotherapies and immunotherapy strategies like the ones previously mentioned. As we celebrate Cancer Immunotherapy Month, Arizona Oncology wishes to recognize the remarkable progress that has been made in this field of research and the immense potential that lies ahead. Cancer immunotherapy represents a paradigm shift in cancer treatment, offering renewed hope and transforming the lives of countless patients worldwide. With continued dedication and innovation, the future of cancer immunotherapy holds the promise of further breakthroughs and improved outcomes in the fight against cancer.