The immune system provides an essential component in the fight against cancer. In general, our immune response can help slow down cancer growth by destroying tumor cells.

Researchers have been developing ways in which to assist the immune system in the fight against cancer and help it do its job more efficiently. This area of cancer treatment is referred to as cancer immunotherapy and is also known as immuno-oncology.

What is the Immune System?

The immune system is a set of biological structures and processes within the body that helps to protect it from disease. When you catch a cold, your immune system jumps into action to combat the virus and kill it off so that you can return to full health.

In reality, the immune system is a collection of cells and proteins that set up the defence mechanism for the entire body. More remarkably, the immune system can keep track of viruses and microbes so that, if another attack occurs, it has the tools already available to suppress it.

The immune system involves several different components in the body working together to combat infection:

  • Antibodies
  • White blood cells
  • The lymphatic and complement system
  • The spleen
  • The thymus
  • Bone marrow

Can You Boost Your Immune System?

Having a healthy immune system is important but, according to Harvard University, the ability to ‘boost’ your immune system on your own is an elusive concept at best.

That’s because the immune system involves the complex relationship between different parts of the body. There’s often talk of maintaining a healthy lifestyle to ensure that the harmony and balance our immune system needs is present.

It’s generally accepted that making healthy choices is important.
This means:

  • Eating healthily
  • Avoiding smoking
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Reducing stress
  • Keeping a healthy weight
  • Getting quality sleep

The Immune System and Cancer

The relationship between the immune system and cancer is complicated. There are two issues to consider here. The first is how the immune system acts to protect and fight cancer. The second is how cancer and treatments such as chemotherapy affect the immune response.

We have an immune response that lives with us from birth and this is made up of many mechanisms, such as the lining of the stomach which can trap bacteria and the urinary system which expels dangerous bacteria from the body.

We also have acquired immunity which comes from overcoming disease or having something like a vaccine that protects against certain viruses or bacteria.

In certain circumstances, an immune response can occur that attacks parts of cancer cells and destroys them. Indeed, immune cells have been found on or around tumors. While they may not be able to destroy cancer completely, they have significant potential in combatting the disease. This is now being successfully utilized in an approach called cancer immunotherapy.

The immune response can also be affected by the cancer itself and the treatment an individual undergoes. For example, chemotherapy kills cancer cells but also lowers the neutrophils count in the body. These are white blood cells that normally combat infections.

That’s why people who are receiving chemotherapy or radiotherapy may be more prone to problems from conditions such as fungal infections or the flu. It’s important to monitor the health of the patient closely and use treatments such as antibiotics that can help compensate for a compromised immune system.  

Cancer Immunotherapy

Cancer immunotherapy is being used more and more as an effective way of helping individuals fight cancer. While our immune response alone can normally slow the growth and destroy some cancer cells, it is not that efficient. Cancer cells can disguise or hide themselves and even turn off certain immune cells.

Immunotherapy is a series of biological interventions that help the immune response act more effectively.

These include:

  • Checkpoint inhibitors: Sometimes the immune system can be far too strong and cause damage. These inhibitors tone down that immune response and make it more effective for cancer treatment.
  • T-cell transfer: These cells can be found around a tumor. When physically removed, the most responsive and effective T-cells can be isolated and changed or grown in larger batches to combat cancer better.
  • Monoclonal antibodies: These are proteins that attach to cancer cells and make them more ‘visible’ to the immune system so they are better targeted and destroyed.

Also, treatment vaccines and immune system modulators can be used to enhance the patient’s immune response.

Currently, the use of immunotherapy in the fight against cancer is not as prevalent as other treatments, such as chemotherapy and surgery. However, it is being used much more frequently than before – both as a standalone treatment and in combination with other therapies.

Rapid Integration into Clinical Practice

Extensive research into cancer immunotherapy treatments has shown just how effective they can be and this has lead to them becoming more rapidly integrated into clinical practice.

One thing that makes this type of treatment stand out, compared to chemotherapy, is that it specifically targets malignant cells and avoids damaging normal, healthy tissues.

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