Researchers from several institutions are working to harness the immune system’s ability to fight diseases to combat cancer more effectively. The immune system is critical to defending the body from outside invaders, such as harmful microorganisms that can cause lethal infections.
According to University of Oxford Kidani professor of immuno-oncology Tim Elliot, the immune system also plays a critical role in fighting cancer by spotting and destroying rogue cells before they can snowball into full-blown cancer.
Scientists have begun leveraging their understanding of the interactions between the immune system and cancer cells to come up with innovative cancer-treatment strategies. These strategies rely on either improving the body’s immune defenses against cancer or eliminating obstacles that prevent immune cells from discovering and killing cancer cells. Immunotherapy is an example of a relatively novel treatment that boosts the immune system’s ability to destroy cancer cells.
Institute of Cancer Research cancer immunotherapy group leader Dr. Astero Klampatsa noted that immunotherapy was a major addition to cancer treatment tool kits and said that the treatment is here to stay. He says that immunotherapies will become more effective and precise as time passes and become a mainstay of cancer treatment around the world.
Since the FDA approved the first immunotherapy agent in the late 1980s, researchers are still working to make the treatment more precise at targeting cancer cells and more effective at destroying them. This includes research into creating immunotherapies that can prevent cancers such as lung and breast cancer from growing in the first place.
Elliot explains that cancer cells develop when healthy cells lose the ability to follow instructions about cell division and when to die, resulting in cells that divide and grow out of control and ultimately become cancerous. The immune system is incredibly well equipped to spot such cells by surveilling the antigens that occur on the surfaces of all cells, but cancer cells regularly develop escape mechanisms that allow them to avoid the immune system’s watchful eye. This includes altering or downregulating surface antigens on cancer cells to reduce their visibility or engineering the tumor microenvironment to block the entry or function of immune cells.
Immunotherapies that can circumvent these escape mechanisms will be key to treating cancers that typically don’t respond to treatment. Researchers are also working to develop immunotherapies that work on the majority of cancer patients rather than a small subset of responsive patients.
Leveraging biomarkers can allow physicians to predict which medications will be most effective for different cancer patients while sparing them from unnecessary side effects. Such precision immunotherapy would rely on techniques that apply bioinformatics in immune cells collected from tumor and blood samples to determine potential clinical outcomes, Klampatsa says. She adds that adoptive-cell therapies such as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapies have been remarkably successful at treating blood cancers such as lymphoma.
Klampatsa and other researchers are now working to make CAR T-cell therapies more effective against solid tumors with immunosuppressive microenvironments. At the same time, enterprises such as Renovaro BioSciences Inc. (NASDAQ: RENB) are also exploring other ways to leverage the immune system through developing other forms of immunotherapy aimed at treating cancer more effectively.
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