Posted September 30, 2022
By Ray Blanco
Cancer Treatment Crash Course
Your immune system can defeat infectious bacteria, viruses, and even cancer. If it is working properly, it can protect you from deadly diseases.
It began to dawn on medical researchers over a century ago that the immune system played a key role in fighting cancer. Physicians noticed that cancer patients sometimes had tumors recede after an infection. Moreover, the infection didn’t necessarily have to exist at the site of the tumor. Sometimes even a generalized infection causing a high fever had an effect. It became clear that the immune system, now activated by a pathogen, was playing a role in fighting cancer.
This led to some of the early research in what we today call cancer immunotherapy or immuno-oncology. But other areas of therapeutic cancer research advanced faster, so cancer immunotherapy largely took a back seat to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy in the physician’s toolkit.
The human immune system is incredibly complex, and it has taken decades of intense research to understand what we now do. That still-limited understanding, however, has finally led to the first effective cancer immunotherapies. In the past few years, we’ve seen the first of these cancer therapies approved where the goal is to help the patient’s own body heal itself, rather than attack cancer directly via toxic drugs or ionizing radiation.
One of the keys lies in our immune system cells. These “soldier cells” are designed to attack foreign pathogens and mutated cells that are becoming or have become cancer cells.
It’s an extraordinary system, but it isn’t perfect. Cancer cells can evolve defenses—strategies that help them hide from the immune system. Cancer cells can express molecules that either help them hide or repel immune system cells.
Overcoming these defenses and figuring out how to get the body to more quickly identify and neutralize threats could lead to cures for cancers and other terrible diseases. It’s a not-so-simple matter of tweaking the immune system.
The ultimate goal is to prime the body to repel any invaders, creating cells smart enough to see through the disguises cancer creates for itself. These engineered, intelligent cells are part of the growing science of immunotherapy.
These days, immunotherapy is a hot area in cancer research. Many small biotechs have been founded to develop platforms that harness the immune system in the fight against cancer, each one with a unique approach.
Some therapies have even been approved. One type of therapy, called CAR-T, uses a patient's own T-cells, a type of immune system cell that defends against cancer. These T-cells are taken from the patient’s own blood, modified to become “super soldiers’ against cancer, multiplied in culture, and then re-infused back into the patient.
FDA-approved cell-based immunotherapies require each batch of therapeutic cells to be made specifically for the patient using the patient’s own cells. This requires not just a blood extraction to harvest the patient’s T-cells, but also extensive lab work to modify and expand the number of cells before re-infusing them back into the patient.
These therapies are generally reserved as a last line of defense because they can be dangerous.
Fortunately, biotechnology companies are working on newer, safer immunotherapies. As they make their way through development and get to market, they will help save thousands of lives and earn fortunes for their developers and investors.
Other cells, known as natural killer cells are another tool in our immune system tasked with defense.
Natural killer cells are part of the innate immune system. T-cells and other immune system cells are part of the adaptive immune system—they adapt to respond to specific threats, and they remember those threats in the future.
That’s why, for example, it can take some time for a vaccine to grant protective benefits. Natural killer cells, on the other hand, react immediately to cell-based signals of infection or damage. As the first line of defense, they offer a broad and immediate threat response.
Natural killer cells directly seek out abnormal cells, like cancer cells or cells infected by viruses, while leaving healthy cells alone. When they encounter abnormal cells, they produce substances that lead to rapid cell death. Moreover, when they detect abnormal cells as in cancer, they also signal to other parts of the immune system so that it can engage in destroying a tumor.
To sum things up, the future of cancer treatment is looking bright. And the companies at the forefront of this movement will see massive upside as therapies work their way through the FDA approval system.