When you hear the term cancer, what do you think of? You’re not alone if the word frightens you, bringing about thoughts of pain and death. But the news about cancer is not all bad. Scientists are working hard to find new treatments that are safer for patients and more tailored to specific cancer types. This post will discuss cancer immunotherapy: a new kind of treatment that stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Cancer immunotherapy has allowed some patients to live longer and, in some cases, has even caused patients’ cancer to disappear.
If you read our previous blog posts How the Immune System Works and How Vaccines Work, you’ll recognize some of the terms we use to describe how the immune system acts against invaders. But if you didn’t read those posts, don’t worry; important terms are underlined, and you can click them to see their definitions.
Cancer and the Immune System
Cancer cells are altered cells that grow and divide at a faster pace than normal cells, but they are still the patient’s own cells. Because the immune system is trained to ignore the body’s own cells and attack only foreign invaders, the body does not usually fight cancer. This makes it a difficult disease to treat.
The body’s immune cells are always looking around the body, like security guards, for something out of place. Cancer cells can be recognized and taken out by effector cells of the immune system when they have larger amounts of antigens (tags) on their surfaces than normal cells or when they have abnormal antigens on their surfaces. However, cancer cells can use methods of disguise to avoid being “seen.” For example, some cancer cells have antigens on their surface that allow them to pass as normal cells when effector cells come by to inspect the area. Think of this ability as a camouflage system that disguises the cancer cells to protect them from destruction by the immune system. READ MORE