Also sometimes known as biotherapy, immunotherapy is exactly what its name infers; that is, treatment that uses parts of the immune system to fight diseases such as cancer. This type of therapy actually has its roots way back in the late 1800s with a New York surgeon who used bacteria to stimulate the immune system of cancer patients after surgery. Today, the immune system is better understood and new advances in immunotherapy have proven useful in the treatment of a number of different cancers, though immunotherapy still plays a fairly minimal role in cancer treatment.
Basically, immunotherapy takes on two different forms. First of all, patients can be given man-made immune system proteins that the body is lacking; or, secondly, patients can be given drugs to stimulate their existing immune system to work smarter and harder. The former is known as passive immunotherapy; the latter is called active immunotherapy. Most of the immunotherapies in use today are known as targeted immunotherapies – they target one specific kind of cell or antigen rather than stimulating the whole immune system.
Mesothelioma immunotherapy treatments are still in the clinical trial phase for the most part and generally involve monoclonal antibodies made in a lab. This passive form of immunotherapy allows these man-made antibodies to recruit other parts of the immune system to join them in the fight against mesothelioma cells. To date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a number of monoclonal antibodies to treat particular cancers, including the drug Avastin® for mesothelioma. Avastin may be added to standard chemotherapy in hopes of extending the patient’s life expectancy.
Cancer vaccines also constitute a form of immunotherapy. These are still mostly experimental at this time and not a lot of progress has been made in this field during the last several years. Cancer vaccines are designed to work much the same way as any other vaccine; they use weakened viruses to start an immune reaction inside the body. However, unlike the vaccines a baby or small child might receive, cancer vaccines don’t prevent cancer. They try to entice a person’s immune system to attack an already present disease. None of these vaccines have yet to be approved by the FDA though scientists are indeed studying what affects they may have on lung cancers, including mesothelioma.
- American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/
Last modified: December 24, 2010.