A brand new approach to cancer treatments – immunotherapy

Source: TMU Wanfang Hospital

Published on 2020-04-30

With the incidence and mortality rate of cancer steadily growing globally, the refinement and advancement of cancer treatment has become a medical issue that brooks no delay in the modern society.

Late stage cancer often involves metastasis of the cancer to distant organs, and in the past, such tumors cannot be surgically removed, thus there is a reliance of treatment by drugs. The development history of cancer treatment can be largely divided into three phases:

  1. The foundation phase from the 1980s, over a twenty-year period where chemotherapy was the mainstay treatment.
  2. The refinement phase since 2000, where specific markers on cancer cells are used to develop target therapy.
  3. The breakthrough phase since 2015, where cancer treatment has entered a brand new era known as immunotherapy

Dr. Ming-Hung Hu from the Department of Hematology and Oncology, Wanfang Hospital

The main target for traditional chemotherapy treatment is all the cells in the human body, and suppresses biological signals required for cellular growth in order to achieve the effect of reducing the number of cancer cells. Although chemotherapy can achieve good results, the process also effect the functioning of normal, healthy cells in the body, often leading to severe side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, hair loss or reduced white blood cell counts.

Immunotherapy differs from chemotherapy as it does not directly affect tumor cells, but rather “regulate” the existing immune cells in the human body in different ways to eliminate cancer cells. The human immune system is a natural defense mechanism, able to eliminate harmful external agents such as viruses and bacteria, while also fighting against cancer cells that arose through mutations in the body. Under normal circumstances, T-cells in the body can distinguish the tumor antigens presented on cancer cells, and T-cells that successfully identify these cancer cells can destroy them through a series of immune responses. Currently, the most commonly seen immunotherapy drugs is responsible for “waking up” these immune cells, so that the best defense force of the human body can constantly attack and eliminate these lethal tumor cells.

Cancer vaccine as oncology therapy and disease treatment concept using immunotherapy with cells from the human body as a 3D illustration. Photo Credit: Shutterstock