What is immunotherapy in cancer treatment?

What is cancer immunotherapy?

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Immunotherapy involves using the body’s own immune system to fight tumors. This type of treatment is being explored in multiple research studies at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Gilbert.

In essence, the studies are looking at various methods to reprogram the patient’s own blood immune cells, essentially teaching them to seek and destroy cancer cells. The cancers being studied are lymphoma, colon cancer, melanoma, lung cancer and other malignancies.

“These are among the most exciting cutting-edge trials we’ve been involved in because of their potential to help patients with non-chemotherapy approaches by harnessing their own immune system,” said Javier Munoz, MD MS FACP, a hematologist and director of the immunotherapy program at Banner MD Anderson. “In theory, immune cells could eventually be trained to fight several types of cancers, and this is a key technique to re-educate our immune system to attack cancer.”

Banner MD Anderson studies

The focus of the studies at Banner MD Anderson include:

  • Drug therapy: Drugs designed to weaken the signal sent by the cancer cell in order to prevent the body’s own immune mechanism from fighting it. “If the cancer cell were a car with defective brakes that are stuck in the ‘on’ position, these drugs are designed to help in cutting that ‘brake’ and allowing the ‘accelerator’ (the body’s own immune system) to kill the cancer cells,” said Madappa Kundranda, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist at Banner MD Anderson.
  • Cell therapy: Adoptive cell therapy, which uses two methods: taking immune system warriors called “T cells” from patients, expanding them to an army of millions of powerful cells in a lab, and giving them back to the patient; or genetically engineering those T cells to attack a specific cancerous target before reintroducing them into the patient’s body.
  • Vaccines: Therapeutic cancer vaccines designed to stimulate the patient’s own immune system against tumor antigens.
  • Combination therapies: Research trials combining immunotherapy with other techniques such as radiation, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy.

“The cancer immunology field has blossomed as researchers have gotten a better grasp of how cancer cells suppress the patient’s immune system,” said Munoz.

Dr. Kundranda, who is principal investigator on one of the studies, said, “Immunotherapy doesn’t have the same side effect profile as conventional chemotherapy therapy and can potentially provide a durable response, even in aggressive cancers – as has been demonstrated in melanoma, lung, urothelial and other aggressive cancers.

“We are confident these trials will significantly add to our knowledge regarding the interaction of the immune system with chemotherapy-resistant tumors,” Dr. Kundranda said.

Take part in a clinical trial

To learn more about current clinical trials at Banner MD Anderson, call 480-440-7458 or contact BMDACCResearch@bannerhealth.com.

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