Harness Your Immune System to Fight Cancer

The immune system is a biological marvel. It protects the body from potential harm from foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. Sometimes, however, the immune system has difficulty telling the difference between healthy cells and cancerous cells.

Many cancer scientists are focusing on the immune system in the search for new biological cancer treatments. These therapies harness the innate power of the immune system to fight cancer or help control cancer treatment side effects.

They may stop or slow cancer cell growth, make it easier for the immune system to get rid of cancer cells, or they may keep cancer from spreading. Patients can receive biological therapies alone or in conjunction with other treatments.

Existing Therapies

Oncologists already have some cancer fighting therapies that work with the immune system. For example, the drug Herceptin targets the HER2 protein, which grows on the surface of breast cancer cells. At this point, physicians are not sure if Herceptin just attacks cancer cells or also boosts the immune system. Other common biological therapies include BCG (Bacillus Calmette Guerin), IL-2 (Interleukin-2), Interferon alpha, and Rituxan.

Potential New Therapies

Some researchers suspect the interaction between the immune system and cancer is more complex than they originally believed. They've developed a working theory called "immunoediting."

This theory states that while some cancer cell mutations are easy for the immune system to recognize as threats, it's possible the immune system can also "edit" tumors, removing the cells containing easily recognized mutations and leaving the remaining tumor cells to continue to grow or become dormant. These researchers are searching for "driver" mutations that cause cancer. Their goal is to develop a vaccine or therapy that helps the immune system recognize and attack this group of mutated proteins in cancer cells.

Another line of research is exploring the role of natural killer cells in the immune response. It's possible tumor cells may have developed mechanisms to suppress the immune system's activation of natural killer cells, which helps cancer cells resist being destroyed. Scientists are trying to understand the nature of these resistant mechanisms. If they do, they may also develop new cancer treatments that work with the immune system.

Finally, experts at the Mayo Clinic are researching possible vaccines that boost the immune system, or, as they've explained, "give the body a running start in preventing a tumor from growing unchecked."

Many biological therapies are still in early stages of research. If you have cancer, you can contribute to these research efforts by donating cells from your tumor. Talk to your doctor about options.


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National Cancer Institute. "Biological Therapies for Cancer." Web. 13 June 2006.

Medicalxpress.com. "Using the Body's Own Immune System in the Fight Against Cancer." Web. 8 February 2012.

Discovery's Edge. "Training the Immune System to Fight Cancer." Mayo Clinic. Web. 11 July 2011.Description: http://www.elabs7.com/images/mlopen_track.html?mlid=17181

National Cancer Institute. "Biological Therapy." Web. 29 December 2004.