Recently the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has described a new immunotherapy approach, which led to a complete disappearance of tumors in a woman with advanced metastatic breast cancer who only had months to live.
This is such exciting news for all of us that have had cancer touch our lives in one form or another.
What is Cancer Immunotherapy?
The American Cancer Society describes immunotherapy as the following:
Immunotherapy is a 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 your own immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells
Giving you immune system components, such as man-made immune system proteins
Some types of immunotherapy are also sometimes called biologic therapy or biotherapy.
In the last few decades immunotherapy has become an important part of treating some types of cancer. Newer types of immune treatments are now being studied, and they’ll impact how we treat cancer in the future. (Courtesy of The American Cancer Society)
How Does the Immune System Work?
When the body senses foreign substances (called antigens), the immune system works to recognize the antigens and get rid of them.
B lymphocytes are then triggered to make antibodies. These specialized proteins lock onto specific antigens. The antibodies stay in a person's body. That way, if the immune system encounters that antigen again, the antibodies are ready to do their job. That's why someone who gets sick with a disease, like chickenpox, usually won't get sick from it again.
This is also how immunizations (vaccines) prevent some diseases. An immunization introduces the body to an antigen in a way that doesn't make someone sick. But it does let the body make antibodies that will protect the person from future attacks by the germ.
Although antibodies can recognize an antigen and lock onto it, they can't destroy it without help. That's the job of the T cells. They destroy antigens tagged by antibodies or cells that are infected or somehow changed. (Some T cells are called "killer cells.") T cells also help signal other cells (like phagocytes) to do their jobs.
Antibodies can also:
neutralize toxins (poisonous or damaging substances) produced by different organisms
activate a group of proteins called complement that is part of the immune system. Complement helps kill bacteria, viruses, or infected cells.
These specialized cells and parts of the immune system offer the body protection against disease. This protection is called immunity.
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