How Immunotherapy Is Used to Treat Cancer
Immunotherapy is treatment that uses certain parts of a person’s immune system to fight diseases such as cancer. This can be done in a couple of ways:
- Stimulating, or boosting, the natural defenses of your immune system so it works harder or smarter to find and attack cancer cells
- Making substances in a lab that are just like immune system components and using them to help restore or improve how your immune system works to find and attack cancer cells
In the last few decades immunotherapy has become an important part of treating some types of cancer. New immunotherapy treatments are being tested and approved, and new ways of working with the immune system are being discovered at a very fast pace.
Immunotherapy works better for some types of cancer than for others. It’s used by itself for some of these cancers, but for others it seems to work better when used with other types of treatment.
What the immune system does
Your immune system is a collection of organs, special cells, and substances that help protect you from infections and some other diseases. Immune cells and the substances they make travel through your body to protect it from germs that cause infections. They also help protect you from cancer in some ways
The immune system keeps track of all of the substances normally found in the body. Any new substance that the immune system doesn’t recognize raises an alarm, causing the immune system to attack it. For example, germs contain substances such as certain proteins that are not normally found in the human body. The immune system sees these as “foreign” and attacks them. The immune response can destroy anything containing the foreign substance, such as germs or cancer cells.
The immune system has a tougher time targeting cancer cells, though. This is because cancer starts when normal, healthy cells become changed or altered and start to grow out of control. Because cancer cells actually start in normal cells, the immune system doesn’t always recognize them as foreign.
Clearly there are limits on the immune system’s ability to fight cancer on its own, because many people with healthy immune systems still develop cancer:
- Sometimes the immune system doesn’t see the cancer cells as foreign because the cells aren’t different enough from normal cells.
- Sometimes the immune system recognizes the cancer cells, but the response might not be strong enough to destroy the cancer.
- Cancer cells themselves can also give off substances that keep the immune system from finding and attacking them.
To learn more, visit cancer.org.