🧠 Explainer: Immunotherapy

A 101 on immunotherapy

🧠Explainer: Immunotherapy

What is immunotherapy?

Our bodies, when functioning properly, are designed to defend and heal us. Right now, as you’re reading this, your immune system is seeking out pathogens and abnormalities in your body and in your cells and destroying them before they can cause too much damage.

Some of these abnormalities are cancer cells, and usually, our immune systems are kicking cancer’s ass. But sometimes - actually, all too often - the cancer cells become too much for the immune system to keep up with, and we get sick.

Luckily, we also have big, beautiful brains that have figured out how to harness the power of our immune systems to fight diseases like cancer. This is immunotherapy. By boosting the body’s immune response to diseased cells, like cancer cells, immunotherapy can help the immune system recognize and attack these cells more effectively. It’s like your immune system on turbo mode.


Immunotherapy for cancer

Cancer fucking sucks.

You don’t need me to tell you that. It’s the second leading cause of death in the US, after heart disease.

You probably know someone who has been affected by cancer. And you also probably know that the most common treatment for cancer, chemotherapy, can be almost as shitty as cancer itself.

Immunotherapy vs chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. These drugs are typically given intravenously or orally and travel through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body.

Chemotherapy drugs can be very effective at killing cancer cells, but they can also damage healthy cells and cause side effects like nausea, hair loss, and fatigue. Immunotherapy, on the other hand, amplifies the body's natural defense against disease, so the side effects are less terrible, but it also may be less effective for some types of cancer.

Both immunotherapy and chemotherapy are important tools in the fight against cancer. They both have the potential to help people with cancer live longer, healthier lives. With continued research and development, we may one day be able to harness the full power of both treatments to fight all types of cancer.

The choice between immunotherapy and chemotherapy depends on a variety of factors, including the type of cancer being treated, the stage of cancer, and the overall health of the patient. Please talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of each treatment option.

How does immunotherapy work?

There are several different types of immunotherapy, all intended to treat different types of cancer because cancer never tires of new ways to be cancer.

Types of Immunotherapy

  1. Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-made proteins that can bind to specific targets on cancer cells. They can block the growth and spread of cancer cells or make them more visible to the immune system. Monoclonal antibodies are typically given intravenously and can be used alone or in combination with other cancer treatments.

  2. Cancer vaccines help the body recognize cancer cells as foreign and attack them. They work by introducing a small amount of a specific cancer antigen into the body, which stimulates the immune system to produce an immune response against the cancer cells. Cancer vaccines can be used to prevent cancer from developing or to treat existing cancer.

  3. Adoptive cell transfer involves removing immune cells from a person's body, modifying them in the laboratory, and then reinfusing them to help fight cancer. This approach is sometimes called cellular immunotherapy or T-cell therapy. Adoptive cell transfer can be used to treat several types of cancer, including melanoma and leukemia.

  4. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are a type of immunotherapy that blocks certain proteins on cancer cells or immune cells. These proteins can prevent the immune system from attacking cancer cells, so by blocking them, immune checkpoint inhibitors can help the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells more effectively. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are typically given intravenously and can be used to treat several types of cancer, including lung cancer and melanoma.

  5. Oncolytic virus therapy is a type of immunotherapy that uses viruses to selectively infect and kill cancer cells. These viruses are typically modified so that they can only replicate in cancer cells, leaving healthy cells unharmed. Oncolytic virus therapy is still in the early stages of development, but it has shown promise in treating several types of cancer, including melanoma and breast cancer.

  6. Personalized Immunotherapy involves using a person's own immune cells to target their specific type of cancer. This approach can be very effective, but it is still in the early stages of development.

Immunotherapy Side Effects

Again, immunotherapy tends to cause fewer side effects than more traditional cancer treatments like chemotherapy but some people may experience side effects like fatigue, fever, and muscle aches.

Common Side Effects of Immunotherapy

  1. Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of immunotherapy. It can range from mild to severe and can make it difficult to carry out daily activities.

  2. Skin reactions, such as rashes and itching, are also common side effects of immunotherapy. These can be mild or severe and may require treatment with topical creams or oral medications.

  3. Digestive issues, such as diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, can also occur as a result of immunotherapy. These side effects can be managed with medications and dietary changes.

  4. Respiratory issues, such as coughing and shortness of breath, can occur in some people who receive immunotherapy. These side effects can be managed with medications and supplemental oxygen.

  5. Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, and muscle aches, can occur after receiving immunotherapy. These side effects are usually mild and can be managed with over-the-counter pain relievers.

Who Qualifies for Immunotherapy?

Not everyone is a candidate for immunotherapy. Some factors that doctors consider when determining whether a person is a good candidate for immunotherapy:

  • Type of cancer: Immunotherapy is most effective in treating cancers that have a high mutation rate, such as melanoma and lung cancer.

  • Stage of cancer: Immunotherapy is most effective in treating early-stage cancer, although it can also be used to treat advanced-stage cancer.

  • Overall health: Immunotherapy can cause side effects, so it is important for a person to be in good overall health before starting treatment.

  • Previous treatments: Immunotherapy may be used as a first-line treatment, or it may be used after other treatments have failed.

  • Genetic factors: Certain genetic factors can affect a person's response to immunotherapy.


Immunotherapy for Allergies

Just as immunotherapy can be used to boost your immune system, it can also be used as a treatment for an overactive immune system that causes allergies. Immunotherapy works by training the immune system to become less sensitive to allergens, reducing or eliminating allergy symptoms.

There are two main types of immunotherapy for allergies: subcutaneous immunotherapy (SCIT) and sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT).

SCIT involves injecting small amounts of allergen extract under the skin, which sounds itchy, while SLIT involves placing a tablet or liquid containing the allergen extract under the tongue.

Immunotherapy Research

Immunotherapy is a relatively new field and the research is just starting to take off.

The biotech company Evaxion is using AI to help identify new source targets in personalized cancer therapy that may help with previously unresponsive technologies.

Maybe the robots will save us after all?

Two-pronged immunotherapy research has recently shown promising results in reducing metastic breast cancer in mice, and another lung cancer study had a median survival rate that was nearly twice as high for those that received immunotherapy treatments.

What you can do

  • Find clinical trials near you with Power

  • Immunotherapy can be expensive. Find resources to help finance treatment here

Folks kicking cancer’s ass on the pod


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