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Fighting Cancer From Within

Publication: Healthy Magazine, McAllen

Sometimes, a great idea comes around, but is overshadowed. In the fight against cancer, chemotherapy and radiation treatments have been our primary “go-to” treatment options for decades and most of our research has been focused on making these more effective.

Immunotherapy is a not-so-new treatment that is coming into its golden age, thanks to developments in medical technology and research. We’re just starting to scratch the surface of what may be the biggest revolution in cancer treatment in our lifetimes – harnessing the immune system to help fight cancer.

When the immune system encounters foreign cells from ordinary diseases – such as a virus or bacteria – it recognizes certain traits and starts fighting them. Within a few days, the body is healthy again. However, the immune system has a harder time recognizing threatening cancer cells.

In the late 1800’s, Dr. William Coley found that some cancer patients benefited when their immune systems were “enhanced” with certain bacteria. Coley’s treatment concept faded when advances in chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery were developed. In the last few decades, researchers have returned to Coley’s intriguing idea. What if we could give the body’s immune system the boost it needs to fight cancer the way it would fight another disease?

Thanks to a more advanced understanding of the human immune system, we’re able to do just that. Immunotherapy is not currently available for all forms of cancer, but the treatments that have been fully approved or are in clinical trials are radically changing cancer treatment.

Vaccines, which are patient and cancer specific, have been developed for some forms of cancer. They may boost an immune system response or help prevent a future recurrence. Much like chicken pox, your body has a “memory” of how it fought the disease the first time.

Some immunotherapy is not specific to a cancer type. Interlukins and interferons help the immune system resist cancer and viral infections. Patients receive these medications which help the immune system cells grow and divide more rapidly to resist infection. This has proven effective for some forms of cancer.

Another type of immunotherapy is more specific. Your body already makes antibodies to fight infections like the flu. Scientists are now designing antibodies to target specific antigens in cancer cells. After they are injected into a patient, they seek to bind to the cancer cells and destroy them. Since healthy cells don’t contain the antigen, they are not affected.

Using the body’s own tools to fight cancer is opening up a new and exciting horizon in oncology. For example, immunotherapy led to the first new treatments for melanoma to be approved by the FDA in more than a decade. In some cases, immunotherapies can mean fewer unpleasant side effects for patients. For me as a physician, they mean hope for patients whose current treatment options are not enough.

Immunotherapy may be the most exciting part of the cancer research field today, and our patients are helping to move it forward. At Texas Oncology, our patients can participate in promising clinical trials, including those for immunotherapy, in their local communities.

By Dr. Alvaro Restrepo, MD

This story originally appeared in Healthy Magazine, McAllen.

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