We are embarking on a new horizon in fighting cancer, and it looks like there’s a possibility we might win this battle. Cancer treatment and patients’ prognosis are changing in positive ways, in part, due to the introduction of immunotherapy.

Traditional medicine, which includes chemotherapy and radiation, does not always distinguish well between cancerous and non-cancerous cells and healthy cells can be affected in the process, which is one of the reasons patients often experience severe side effects from treatment. Immunotherapy, on the other hand, often results in different, more tolerable side effects and has proven to be highly effective for many patients.

Cancer cells are tricky

Cancer cells can trick the immune system into not recognizing them as dangerous, which prevents them from being destroyed. Cancer cells are often masked by the same outer proteins found on normal cell membranes; one example of this type of protein is called PD-1. If an immune cell comes into contact with a cancer cell that has the PD-1 protein on its membrane, the immune cell recognizes the cancer cell as one of its own, therefore the cancer cell remains unharmed and allowed to proliferate.

Once this phenomenon was discovered, researchers began to ask critical questions including: What would happen if the PD-1 protein was blocked? Would the immune cell then recognize the cancer cells as an enemy and destroy them? Questions such as these propelled immunotherapy into the spotlight.

How does immunotherapy work?

Immunotherapy uses the body’s own natural defense system to kill cancer cells, while leaving normal cells intact.

New therapies, known as monoclonal antibodies, have been developed to prevent this interaction between immune cells and cancer cells. Once this interaction is blocked, the immune system recognizes the cancer cell as foreign to the body and initiates a full-on immunologic attack. The cancer cell doesn’t stand a chance.

Currently, there are clinical trials underway using combinations of immunotherapy and kinase inhibitors, both of which specifically attack only the cancer cell and leave the healthy cells alone, which is a giant step forward.

To learn more about the changing landscape of cancer research, click here.