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What is immunotherapy & what can it help?

Closeup of immune cells
Published on: 
30/06/2021 - 08:46

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Immunotherapy is the broader term for medical treatments which invoke a natural immune response to illness and disease. Also called 'biological therapy' or 'biological response modifier therapy', immunotherapy has been at the forefront of a huge amount of very exciting scientific research in recent years. Although it is often associated with cancers, immunotherapies have also been demonstrated for use against illness reslting from inflammation, infection and autoimmune conditions.

This article serves to provide more information about immunotherapy, how it works, the different types of immunotherapies, and the conditions they are designed to treat. This information is intended as a general guide only and should not be construed as medical advice or opinion.

Boosting the immune system's natural capacity

The natural role of the immune system is to protect the body against cellular threats. It is a complex multi-faceted system capable of identifying abnormal cells and then recruiting special cells to destroy or isolate them from spreading further. However, sometimes the immune system is unable to do this, so these cells find ways to bypass the body’s natural defenses and continue to grow. This is where immunotherapy can assist by stimulating (or at times suppressing) the immune system to do its job more effectively. There are many different types of immunotherapies, and they all work in different ways. What they all have in common however, unlike other treatments such as chemo and radiation, is that they work within the natural capacity of your immune system rather than overriding it.

Biological Response Modifiers (BRMs)

Immunotherapy starts with the assumption our immune system already knows how to fight illness. It works by using medications called biological response modifiers (BRMs) to trigger the immune response. These BRMs are usually produced by the body in small amounts and is why your body is able to fight off some threats without any extra help. But bigger threats such as cancer and arthritis often require more BRMs than the body can produce naturally. This is where immunotherapy comes in. The BRMs are created in a clinical setting, and can then be supplemented to the patient to scale up (or down) the body's natural defenses.

Suppressing immune response (immunosuppresants)

Typically immunotherapy is associated with treatments designed to boost immune function. However, in the case of certain autoimmune or inflammatory disorders where the immune system “misfires” or attacks normal tissue, immunotherapy can sometimes be used to suppress the immune system or cooling off harmful inflammation. Treatments that focus on this method of suppressing rather than boosting the immune system are known as immunosuppresants. With respect to GcMAF, although it is not harmful to use alongside immunosuppresant medications, it may affect the efficacy due to the conflicting nature of both boosting and suppressing the immune system at thre same time. For this reason we do not recommend using GcMAF alongside any type of immunosuppresant

What conditions are treated by immunotherapy?

We primarily hear about immunotherapy with regard to cancer treatment, but we now use it to treat a wide range of immune-related conditions. Here are some of the most common:

Cancers

Cancer is the most common application of immunotherapy. It can work by helping the immune system identify cancer cells — which can "hide" from the cells in our immune system known to fight them. The medication then amplifies the action of these immune cells to destroy the cancer.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Immunotherapy is one of the best treatments to slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis. It works by targeting T-cells or blocking certain proteins in the immune system. These both play a role in the inflammation experienced by people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Recent studies suggest immunotherapy is a breakthrough treatment for MS. This is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack healthy cells. Immunotherapy for MS works by exposing the immune system to small amounts of the tissue it's attacking. This starts with a low dose — increasing over time to build a tolerance.

Allergies

Immunotherapy is also used to reduce the severity of allergic reactions. Like immunotherapy for MS, it works by presenting increasing doses of the allergen to the immune system. Over time, the immune system becomes less sensitive to the substance.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is a disease of the immune system. It happens when the immune cells attack the cells responsible for insulin production in the pancreas. Immunotherapy targets this response, reprogramming the immune system to stop attacking the insulin-producing cells.

Additionally to the above, research continues on how immunotherapy can be used for other conditions including inflammatory bowel diseases (IBS), psoriasis, cardiovascular diseases, and even to complement antiretroviral therapy (ART) in people living with HIV.

Types of immunotherapy

There are several types of immunotherapy available to treat illnesses like those listed above. Here are some of the most widely used:

Checkpoint inhibitors

Checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that work by blocking checkpoint proteins that interfere with or stop the immune system from attacking cancer cells.

Non-specific immunotherapy

This is probably the oldest immunotherapy concept. It works by stimulating or boosting the immune system in a general way. Certain non-specific immunotherapies are sometimes administered as cancer treatments. Others work as adjuvants or are administered along with a main treatment.

Oncolytic virus therapy

In oncolytic virus therapy, viruses are used to target and attack tumors. Depending on the type of cancer, modified or naturally occurring viruses are used to selectively infect cancer cells. Some oncolytic viruses are programmed to cause cancer cells to burst – effectively killing them and releasing antigens which will, in turn, stimulate an immune response that can lead to the identification and elimination of remaining cancer cells in the body.

T-cell therapy

Also known as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, this type of immunotherapy is a fairly recent development and is approved for use in treating acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) in children and young adults, as well as specific types of adult non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In this type of treatment, doctors take certain white blood cells from the patient’s body and genetically change them into target-seeking cells that are then returned to the patient’s body.

Cancer vaccines

There are two types of cancer vaccines: those that help prevent cancer and ones that are used to treat cancer. Certain cancer vaccines can be used to prevent cancers caused by viruses, such as cervical, anal, vaginal, vulvar, penile and throat cancers that have been linked to certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), and liver cancer that is caused by hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections. Cancer vaccines designed to treat cancer are used to incite an immune response against cancer cells in the body. These make use of pure antigens, cancer cells, parts of cancer cells, or even a patient’s own immune cells.

Common immunotherapy side effects

The side effects of immunotherapy vary widely, depending on the specific treatment being used. Other factors such as the patient’s health status, the type of cancer, and its location may also contribute to a patient's side effects. However, there are also side effects that usually occur across the various immunotherapy approaches. These include coughing, chills, constipation, diarrhea, arthritis, fever or flu-like symptoms, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, loss of appetite, itching, headaches, rashes, pain in the injection site, hypothyroidism, and hypopituitarism.

A better fight with immunotherapy

Depending on the type of immunotherapy, some are designed to be complementary to other approaches, whilst some are considered effective on their own. The overal immunotherapy space in recent years is a truly promising aspect of cancer and other disease treatment, especially as new approaches are still being studied and tested. Hopefully, there will come a time when all cancers and other diseases can be treatable through biotherapy.