Cancer Immunotherapy

woman with cancer

Immunotherapy represents a powerful new weapon against cancer that accompanies, and sometimes replaces, traditional anticancer treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. As suggested by the term itself, immunotherapy is a therapeutic strategy based on the action of the body’s defense system (immune system).

The immune system is made up of a complex network of cells and chemicals that act to defend the body from anything that is recognized as foreign, such as microorganisms and tumors. To do this, the immune system must be able to detect a wide variety of substances derived from microorganisms or tumors called antigens.

In the case of tumors, after an initial phase in which the immune response is able to recognize and eliminate most of the tumor cells, these can change or suppress the body’s defense mechanisms, managing to escape the control of the immune system.

The goal of tumor immunotherapy is, therefore, to restore the immune system’s ability to recognize tumor cells and effectively eliminate them, overcoming the mechanisms by which tumors suppress the immune response.

The main advantages of immunotherapy over other types of anticancer treatments are specificity (ability to recognize malignant cells and spare healthy ones) and long-term memory. When effective, immunotherapies can therefore lead to responses that can make the disease regress for a time far longer than traditional treatments.

Cancer Immunotherapy Strategies

After the discovery of the immune system’s ability to fight cancer, several immunotherapy strategies were developed that exploit the different components of the immune system.

Cytokine Therapies

The first therapies were based on the use of particular substances, called cytokines, responsible for the communication between the cells of the immune system. Cytokine therapy aims to activate the body’s defense reaction against cancer cells. Cytokines are molecules naturally produced by the human body in small quantities and can be synthesized in large quantities in the laboratory and administered to patients.

ill woman in chair

Available Therapies

Some cytokines, such as interleukin-2 and interferon-α, have found application in the therapy of some types of tumors.

Interleukin-2 is indicated for the treatment of some forms of:Interferon-α can be used to treat:
melanomahairy cell leukemia
kidney cancerchronic myeloid leukemia
acute myeloid leukemiamultiple myeloma
follicular lymphoma

Cytokine therapy can be used alone or in combination with other treatments. Today, thanks to the development of more effective treatments with fewer undesirable effects (side effects), cytokine therapy is reserved only for special cases.

Side Effects

The most common side effects associated with taking interleukin-2 and interferon-α are:

decreased appetite
joint and muscle pain
appearance of spots on the skin (skin rash)
fluid retention
lowering of blood pressure