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How Immunotherapy Is Changing Cancer Treatment

Did you know your own immune system is among your best defenses against cancer?

“The body has ‘good cells’ (Lymphocytes) patrolling our bodies looking for ‘bad cells’ (cancer cells),” according to Javier Munoz, MD, MS, FACP, the director of the immunotherapy program at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Cancer occurs when those bad cancer cells evade and outsmart the good Lymphocyte cells in your immune system. Immunotherapy for cancer treatment uses your body's own natural defenses to fight cancer by harnessing your immune system to launch an attack against cancer.

“Cancer cells have a way of disguising themselves, so we need to re-educate our immune system to seek and destroy cancer cells,” Munoz said.

Banner MD Anderson identifies several different types of immunotherapies that can be used, depending on the type of cancer you have:

  • Immune checkpoint therapy: Within our immune system we have T cells. These extremely powerful cells help us fight cancer, but they also have the potential to damage healthy cells. T cells are controlled through “immune checkpoints.” In Immunotherapy, a protein found in immune checkpoints shuts a T cell off to prevent it from accidentally damaging your healthy cells.
  • Adoptive cellular therapy: This type of immunotherapy improves the power of your immune response against cancer by increasing the number and/or effectiveness of immune cells, usually T cells.
  • Cancer vaccines: These vaccines assist your body in recognizing cancer cells and then stimulating your immune system to destroy them. The vaccines usually include cancer cells taken from your tumor, proteins designed to attach themselves to cancer cells or proteins specific to your tumor.
  • Monoclonal antibodies: These antibodies attach to cancer cells or immune cells and mark the cancer as a target for the immune system or fight the cancer by increasing your immune cells’ ability to destroy the cancer.
  • Cytokine therapy: Your immune system has proteins called interferons and interleukins; these proteins trigger your immune system to respond. Interleukin-2 can help treat kidney cancers and melanomas that have spread to other regions of your body while Interferon alpha (IFN-alpha) can be used to treat melanoma, kidney cancer and certain leukemias and lymphomas.

Immunotherapy Side Effects

While immunotherapies are accomplishing great things, there are side effects you should consider.

“Immunotherapy revs up your immune system, which may cause confusion as the immune system may start attacking normal cells,” said Munoz. He advises you to discuss the pros and cons of the treatment with your physician prior to beginning any immunotherapy.

One Patient’s Success Story

Banner MD Anderson is involved in some of the most exciting and cutting-edge clinical trials that use different methods to reprogram your own blood immune cells to seek and destroy cancer cells. Trials currently include adoptive cell therapy; cancer vaccines; medications that alter signals sent by cancer cells; and trials combining immunotherapy with radiation, chemotherapy or targeted therapy.

One recent success involves a 73-year-old patient of Banner MD Anderson (now in remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) following her participation in Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy. This type of immunotherapy changes a patient’s own immune system cells so they’re able to recognize and attack cancer. She went through four different types of treatments with other physicians, with no success, before receiving CAR T cell therapy at Banner MD Anderson.

“Currently this treatment is only being used for certain patients with relapsed or refractory B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia and large B cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” said Munoz. “But if our studies continue to prove effective, these CAR T cells have the potential to change the therapeutic landscape for other malignancies, as well.”

Find more information on these clinical trials.