Broadly speaking Immunotherapy is a form of cancer treatment that involves the use of certain substances to rally the immune system to prevent or fight disease. These substances are typically biological response modifiers, or BRMs in short, and checkpoint inhibitors. Instead of directly attacking cancer cells an immune system that is primed with these modifiers and inhibitors uses its own immune cells to identify and destroy cancer cells. As the saying goes in Oncology, Immunotherapy treats the body and the body treats the cancer.

Various substances may be put to use in provoking an immune response. Checkpoint inhibitors (also referred to as checkpoint blockers) are drugs that are often used in Immunotherapy. They act as natural brakes to the immune system allowing T cells to recognise and attack cancerous tumours. T cells have a layer of protein on the surface that restrains them from attacking cancer cells. The Immunotherapy drugs referred to as checkpoint inhibitors disable this braking effect of the T cells’ surface proteins, in effect unleashing them on the cancer cells.

Treating Cancer with Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy as a stand-alone treatment has proven to be of great benefit to some patients, significantly reducing the size of the tumour as well as ensuring a patient’s longer survival period. This success rate is not as high as one would expect, however, with 20% to 40% of patients recording good results depending on the cancer being treated and the particular drug used. The challenge has thus far been to establish the cause of the divergence in results and to understand why some patients respond so positively to the treatment while others do not.

Latest Immunotherapy Research

Researchers from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the University of Pennsylvania and the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy have shown that an individual’s patient’s blood is a data bank of information which provides reliable clues as to whether the patient will respond positively to Immunotherapy or not.  Blood contains biomarkers. These are substances in an organism whose presence may indicate the existence of some phenomenon such as disease or infection. In a study conducted by this team of scientists in which 47 patients with Stage 4 Melanoma (a cancer of the skin) were treated with pembrolizumab (a checkpoint inhibitor) the researchers were able to study which T cells showed signs of battle-readiness as a result of the injection of this drug.

The study concluded that the level of a particular protein produced by these immune cells (T cells) was a fairly accurate indication as to what the outcome of a therapy would be, while also taking into account the size and number of tumours. The presence or absence of this protein biomarker (determined by a simple blood draw) will be an essential part of future diagnoses and will help doctors determine whether to administer Immunotherapy or to prescribe an alternative treatment.

The ascendance of alternative cancer treatments has challenged previously held notions and changed the way cancer is viewed as a disease. The non-intrusive and non-toxic methods that are available in treating it have been particularly beneficial to patients. Immunotherapy is just one of these treatments. When a wide range of integrative cancer treatments are put to work, and given their non-toxic nature, a patient’s chances of recovery are significantly enhanced while at the same time boosting their immune system by using a holistic approach to treatment.

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Source: Sloan Kettering