Chemotherapy and radiation are slowly being replaced as cancer treatment

Immunotherapy is becoming an alternative cancer treatment for many.

Immunotherapy is becoming an alternative cancer treatment for many.

Natalia Becsak, Contributing Writer

For many years, chemotherapy and radiation therapy have been the two most common methods used to treat cancer; while they have been shown to effectively eliminate cancerous cells within the body, they have the ability to destroy healthy cells as well.  As a result, patients often experience a myriad of negative side effects, including hair loss, anemia, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, enhanced chance for sickness, and more.  Despite the agonizing effects that accompany chemo and radiation therapy, many cancer patients have still resorted to these treatments because they thought they were the only ones available to them — that is, until the method of immunotherapy was brought to their attention. 

Scientists have realized that the immune system often does not recognize cancer cells as a threat because they, along with the many healthy cells in one’s body, are fast-growing cells.  Immunotherapy ultimately solves this fault, as it focuses of stimulating the immune system in order to enhance its effectiveness, and its awareness of cancerous cells within the body.  Scientists have been able to accomplish this stimulation through the supplementation of drugs that contain man-made components such as checkpoint inhibitors, and monoclonal antibodies. 

Checkpoint inhibitors are proteins that serve the purpose of controlling the behavior of T-cells, which are lymphocytes (smaller versions of a white blood cell) that attack foreign or fast-growing cells within the body.  The protein PD-1 is used to enhance the aggressiveness of the T-cells so that they can eliminate cancerous cells in a more effective manner.  The PD-L1 is then applied in order to regulate the lymphocytes, as they enhancement of their effectiveness can often lead to the destruction of healthy cells, just like chemo or radiation therapy.

Immunotherapy also includes the method of attacking cancer cells with antibodies.  Antibodies work by attaching themselves to a threatening, foreign substance (also known as an antigen), and destroy it, along with the other cells that include the same antigen.  With this in mind, scientists figured they could create specialized antibodies that are programmed to destroy cancer cells; these types of antibodies is called a monoclonal antibodies. The most common type is the naked monoclonal antibody, which stimulates the immune system, and prohibits the spreading of cancer by marking the tumor cells other antibodies need to destroy, and blocking their bonding sites. 

There are many types of cancers that immunotherapy has been able to treat so far, including Hodgkin’s lymphoma, advanced melanoma, and lung, neck, head, and bladder cancer.  The treatment is said to not have a drastic impact on many, as only about 20 to 40 of patients treated with immunotherapy are truly helped by it, but for those of which it has helped, it has helped efficiently.  About 25 to 90 percent of patients with cancer in the lymphatic system experience full remissions. 

Even though immunotherapy has been proven to be incredibly effective in diminishing cancer cells, its success is unfortunately accompanied by several side effects.  These include the increased possibility of the immune system attacking healthy cells, bowel issues, joint and muscle pain, nausea, and so on.  While these side effects appear quite similar to those of chemotherapy and radiation, they are said to be less intense for the patient.

Recently, four women with terminal ovarian cancer had an amazing experience with immunotherapy.  Each of them had tried chemo and radiation therapy, but their tumor cells kept of appearing.  Since they were only expected to live for a couple of more months, doctors determined that treating the cancer with immunotherapy would have no impact.  To their surprise, the therapy ended up putting the four women into remission.  After taking the necessary drugs, the women said that their tumors immediately began to shrink.  Only after one year, immunotherapy gave these women the ability to lead a normal life again.