Immunotherapy is the process by which certain biological methods are employed to strengthen the immune system. Mostly, it is used for patients with cancer to help them prevent or beat the disease. The immune system is composed of white blood cells which work in connection with the lymph system to fight disease.
Immunotherapy employs the use of medicines or drugs that are extracted from living organisms. This is to ensure that they are effective enough to fight the disease because they can be customized to target certain cells only, among other impressive features.
In order to understand immunotherapy well, we will have to explore the following topics:
- Types of immunotherapy
- How it works
- How it is administered
- Side effects
Types of Immunotherapy
These are the types of immunotherapy that are used to treat cancer mostly.
- Monoclonal Antibodies- These are designed to specifically destroy certain targets in the body. They are aimed at destroying specific types of cells that are malignant. Cancer cells normally look for antigens that will help them in the process of spreading throughout the body. They then attach themselves to these antigens and use them to multiply and grow. Monoclonal antigens are used to target these antigens and destroy them. There is also the concept of precision or targeted therapy, where these monoclonal antibodies are used to identify and tag the cancerous cells. This makes it easier for the immune system to discover and eliminate them.
- Cancer Vaccines- Vaccines are mostly thought of in the context of preventives of impeding disease or expected attack by some form of virus or bacteria. However, in immunotherapy, vaccines are being used to treat some types of cancer. Even after setting in, cancers of the mouth, throat, and cervix among others have been prevented and even treated when it comes to immunotherapy. The vaccines are designed to find and destroy the malignant cells before they can take over and grow.
- Checkpoint Blockers- The human immune system has T-cells, which are the strongest and most successful when it comes to battling diseases that are especially difficult to beat. The body has checkpoints which slow down the release of these cells. By use of checkpoint blockers, the cells which use them to dodge fights will eventually be caught. As these progress, the body will learn to deal with these dodgers on its own by letting loose the T-cells and blocking the pathways used by sneaky cancer cells. However, these drugs have been known to work on certain types of patients only, and they have a host of side effects that cause discomfort.
- General Immunotherapy- These are the therapies that are not focused so much on cancer, but on any and all illnesses that might potentially attack the body. They are not engineered to specifically go to one place but go round the body boosting the Immune system overall.
How It Works
The main idea behind immunotherapy is to do the following:
- Mark cancer cells and make them easier to find.
- Strengthen the immune system against attacks.
- Open up seldom used pathways to find the hiding malignant cells.
The concept lies in the ability to find these hiding cells and destroy them. They are only able to grow and multiply because the immune system is not strong enough to spot them. By use of immunotherapy, all these loopholes can be sealed and the problems eliminated.
How It Is Administered
The drugs are administered in much the same way that other drugs are. These methods include:
- Intravenous/injection- The drugs are put directly into your bloodstream through a vein.
- Intravesical- This is by introducing the immunotherapy substances straight into the bladder.
- Topical- The application of cream on the skin mostly used for skin cancer before it progresses from its early, less serious stages.
- Oral- These are the tablets or capsule that you ingest into your stomach directly.
As it is with all kinds of treatments, there has to be some kind of side effect whose severity will depend on how much of the body you interfered with. Because immunotherapy seeks to tamper with the basic foundation of the immune system, which is one of the body’s biggest systems, you will experience a myriad of effects which include but are not exclusive to:
- Pain at the site of injection
- Weight gain
- Aches in joints
- Lowered blood pressure
- Nausea and vomiting
- Flu-like signs
These will disappear as the body learns to adjust to the treatments. It will get used to the changes and adapt to them while seeking ways to accommodate the changes.
There are risks that come with using such sensitive and powerful methods of treatment like immunotherapy. One thing that should be noted is that death is the least likely risk to occur.
Most of the risks are indicators of an allergic reaction that could potentially be very harmful to the patient.
NOTE: Statistics indicate that only 1 person in every 2 million die from immunotherapy.
- The injection site will itch and swell to indicate allergic reactions
- Allergic symptoms that include; tearing, swelling, and itching of the face
- The occasional death because of sloppily controlled environments
- Abdominal pains
- Nausea and vomiting
- Respiratory difficulties
All of these symptoms, listed above, are indicators that the patient may be experiencing an allergic reaction. These allergic reactions can prove to be fatal at times.
Immunotherapy is a cancer therapy that utilizes the body’s immune system to identify and attack cells that are cancerous. Immunotherapy is a revolutionary type of treatment that has shown much promise in the field of medicine. When you can program a certain cell to attack another specific cell, you have started winning the biology wars.
If the research proves to be successful, we may have the chance for a cancer-free society, a society without all of the suffering and loss that cancer inflicts. We may finally have the ability to properly fight cancer. Welcome to the future of medicine as we know it.