Immunology therapy uses the immune system to fight cancer

July 18, 2016


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Lately, we have been hearing more and more about an increasingly effective form of cancer treatment - Immunotherapy - a type of biological therapy that uses the immune system to help destroy cancer cells.

The immune system is a complex system of cells and organs that work together to defend our bodies against disease and infection. Cancer, and some cancer treatments, can weaken the immune system. Sometimes the immune system doesn’t recognize cancer cells as different, or foreign, and so it doesn’t work to destroy them. Immunotherapy (sometimes called "immuno-oncology") boosts the immune system to help it recognize and fight cancer cells.

Parts of the immune system recognize antigens - a foreign substance that stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies against it on the surface of viruses, bacteria, other germs and cancer cells. Antigens mark these cells as being different so the immune system can find them. The immune system reacts to these antigens and destroys the cells they are attached to.

Normal cells and cancer cells are very similar which makes it difficult for the immune system to recognize cancer cells. In some cases, the immune system may recognize cancer cells, but it may not be strong enough to kill them.

Immunotherapy may be active or passive. Active immunotherapy stimulates and strengthens the body’s immune system response so that it attacks and destroys cancer cells. It can be either non-specific and stimulate or boost the immune system in a very general way, or specific which uses antigens of a specific type of cancer cell to trigger an immune response. These do not cause a general immune system response. Passive immunotherapy uses substances that act like parts of the immune system and attack specific cells. These substances are made in a laboratory.

Immunotherapy is often used to treat bladder cancer in a way called "Intravesical" which means the drug is given directly into the bladder. The doctor passes a tube, or catheter, through the urethra and into the bladder. The drug is given into the bladder through the catheter and is left in the bladder for 1–2 hours to give it time to act on the cancer cells in the lining of the bladder. The most common immunotherapy drug used to treat bladder cancer is Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) - the same bacteria used to vaccinate against tuberculosis. It contains live, but weakened, bacteria that stimulate your immune system to kill cancer cells in the bladder.

Flu-like symptoms are a common side effect of several immunotherapy drugs and may include fever, chills, muscle and joint aches or pain, headache and nausea. People may also experience fatigue, skin rash, allergic reaction or other problems. These symptoms often occur right after treatment but they improve over time. They usually go away with continued therapy, once the body gets used to the drug.

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Cancer immunotherapy was named by Science Magazine as the “breakthrough” scientific achievement of 2013. The magazine’s editors said that immunotherapy is shifting the way cancer researchers are thinking about how to treat the disease, from targeting a tumour to enlisting the immune system to destroy the tumour. The Canadian Cancer Society is funding a number of promising research projects focusing on immunotherapy, investing more than $1 million in 2014 alone.

Immunotherapy may work better for some types of cancer than for other types. It may be used alone, but for some types of cancer, immunotherapy seems to work best when it is used with other types of treatment. Researchers continue to study how immunotherapy can be used to treat people with cancer. If you have cancer and wonder if immunotherapy is an option for you, contact your doctor.

If you want to know more about immunotherapy or other ways of treating cancer, please talk to an information specialist at 1-888-939-3333, visit the website at www.cancer.ca , or call the Canadian Cancer Society Community Office.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016