How Does the Body’s Immune System Fight Cancer? (Immunotherapy)

Immunology is one of the most promising areas of cancer treatment today. Immunotherapy drugs, which use the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer cells, have been effective in treating several forms of the disease, including melanoma, prostate cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma, and certain types of brain tumors.

F. Stephen Hodi, MD
F. Stephen Hodi, MD, is studying ways to enable the immune system to fight cancer.
© 2015 AACR/Todd Buchanan

The immune system has natural stopping points when fighting against bacteria and infection, which prevent the system from going after the body’s own cells and tissues. However, these “brakes” prevent the immune system from successfully attacking cancer cells and tumors. Immunotherapy drugs block those brakes, allowing the immune system to fight and destroy the cancer.

“If we give a patient a specific antibody that blocks this brake, we can cause the immune system to fight and destroy large amounts of cancer without any further manipulation,” says F. Stephen Hodi, MD, director of the Center for Immuno-Oncology and the Melanoma Treatment Center at Dana-Farber. “If we are ever going to ever use the phrase ‘cure for cancer,’ the immune system is likely to have an important role.”

Hodi recently discussed new breakthroughs in the field of immunology in a TED Talk-style presentation called a Science, Innovation, and Discovery Talk (SID Talk). Watch Hodi’s talk below:

 

2 responses to “How Does the Body’s Immune System Fight Cancer? (Immunotherapy)

  1. Could an autoimmune disease I.e. SLE be used against cancer? How is that in comparison to chemotherapy?

  2. Hi Baker —

    Thank you for your comment and for reading Insight. We spoke with one of our experts regarding your question:

    Many of the antigens displayed by tumors to immune cells are self-antigens. Some patients with cancer develop spontaneous autoimmune symptoms. In these cases, the tumor induced an autoimmune response. Those immune responses may help to keep the tumor in check (this is not certain, though).

    Also, immunotherapies can induce autoimmune disease as a side effect (loss of thyroid function with Ipilimumab, for example). However, we would like to treat cancers without such side effects in the future.

    I hope this is helpful — wishing you all the best!

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