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The Research

What We Know


Cancer immunotherapy is both an old and a new class of cancer treatment that works to use the body’s immune system to fight cancer. For a long time doctors suspected that the immune system could affect certain cancers and although there was some initial success, much of the progress was overshadowed when other forms of cancer treatment, such as radiation therapy, came into use. No longer overshadowed, immunotherapy has since grown to be an important part of treating certain types of cancer. Newer types of immune treatments are also now being studied for many other types of cancer, and they will undoubtedly impact how we treat cancer in the future. Although unlikely to replace current standard of care therapies, immunotherapy is emerging as a critical component of many cancer treatments. Despite initial setbacks, clinical benefit is now evident through immunomodulation and cancer vaccines.

The body’s immune system keeps track of all of the substances normally found in the body. By doing so, the body is able to recognize any substance not normally found. When such a substance is identified, the immune system triggers a response and rids it from the body. Most people are familiar with the body’s immune system in regards to germs, bacteria, and viruses. Each of these has substances on their outer surfaces, such as certain proteins, that are not normally found in the human body. The immune system sees these foreign substances as antigens and attacks them. Antigens are the substances that cause this immune system response. Cancer cells are also different from normal cells in the body. They sometimes have unusual substances on their outer surfaces that can act as antigens, which can allow the immune system to recognize them and trigger a response. However, unlike germs, bacteria, and viruses, cancer cells are only slightly different from normal cells and often appear very similar to normal cells. This makes it far more difficult for the immune system to recognize cancer cells. To overcome this, researchers have found ways to help the immune system recognize cancer cells and strengthen its response so that it will destroy them.

There are currently several types of immunotherapy used to treat cancer. One of which is the use of cancer vaccines. As discussed above, most people know of vaccines in the context of things like a flu shot. Vaccines are substances put into the body to start an immune response against certain diseases. Cancer vaccines work differently than vaccines for bacteria and viruses. Instead of preparing the body to prevent disease, like the typical flu shot, cancer vaccines aim to trigger an immune system response to attack a disease that already exists in the body. There are a variety of methods to achieve this goal, but at the root of them all is that cancer vaccines direct the immune system to attack cells with one or more specific antigens, which are identified to the body via the vaccine. The goal is to target cancer-related epitopes (a molecular region on the surface of an antigen capable of eliciting an immune response) over-expressed on malignant tissue but distinct from normal tissue to stimulate the body’s immune system to recognize and destroy tumor cells specifically.

Because of the immune system’s unique properties, these therapies may hold greater potential than other current treatment approaches to fight cancer more powerfully, to offer longer-term protection against the disease, to come with fewer side effects, and to benefit more patients with more cancer types. Some immunotherapies boost the body’s overall immune system while other immunotherapies train the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells specifically. Immunotherapy is sometimes used by itself, but it seems to work better when used with other types of treatment. Currently, there exists only one vaccine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is used to treat prostate cancer. Provenge (sipuleucel-T), the first true cancer vaccine, gained FDA approval for the treatment of hormone-resistance metastatic prostate cancer in 2010. And while this vaccine doesn’t cure prostate cancer entirely, it has been shown to extend patients’ lives. However, there are many different types of cancer vaccines that have shown promise in clinical trials. Cancer immunotherapy has emerged as an important treatment modality in addition to surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and hormonal treatment.   Whereas the expectations for improvement in survival advantage and toxicity reduction of current chemotherapies are relatively modest, immunotherapy holds substantial potential as a non-toxic, sustainable therapeutic option personalized to patients’ specific tumor characteristics.

As the benefits of immunotherapy advance, Cancer Insight aims to provide personalized vaccines for each patient participating in our clinical trials.