Harnessing the Immune System in the Fight Against Cancer

The immune system is an incredibly complex and powerful biological mechanism designed to defend our bodies against the onslaught of pathogens, bacteria, and viruses we come into contact with each day. But not only does it protect against incoming threats, it’s also responsible for identifying and eliminating cancerous or mutated cells as they attempt to gain a foothold in the body. In recent years, researchers have discovered an intricate connection between immune system cells and cancer cells, and they’ve learned that while the immune system plays a critical role in fighting cancer, it can also play an inadvertent role in helping cancer cells thrive. Now, this might seem like bad news, but in fact it’s this very understanding that has enabled science to adapt and push the boundaries on new therapies aimed at harnessing the power of the immune system in the fight against cancer.

How the Immune System Works

To start, the immune system is divided into two parts: innate and adaptive. Each part has its own set of cells, and type of cell has its own directives. The innate immune system is tasked with the first line of defense. It deploys cells to patrol the body, with orders to identify and attack any cell that could pose a threat. Some of the most well-known cells in this system are:

Macrophages: These cells identify and destroy pathogens by consuming them through a process called phagocytosis.

Neutrophils: These cells help heal damaged tissue and resolve infections.

NK cells: Rapid-response cells found to be specifically aggressive in attacking cancerous and pre-cancerous cells.

The adaptive immune system works more slowly, and relies on stored memories to target previously encountered viruses and bacteria. Some of the most well-known cells in this system are:

B-cells: Cells programmed to make one specific type of antibody response.

T-cells: These cells are divided into two types: helper cells, which work to stimulate the B-cells, and killer T-cells, which attack harmful cells directly.

So why doesn’t the immune system destroy cancer?

Actually, it does. According to Dr. Alan Tan, Medical Director of Hematology and Immunotherapy at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, “we all have a mechanism to filter out a small amount of cancer cells to prevent us from having visible cancer in the body. Over time, that balance becomes lost. It's when the immune system is overwhelmed by a tumor that it fails to identify and respond to the threat.” And this is precisely the reason immune system function is so vital to our health. The stronger and more active our immune cells are, the more equipped they are to respond to the problem.

But unlike antigens or bacteria, cancer cells are mutated versions of your body’s own cells. Over the last decade, research has shown that some cancer cells are particularly adept at evading the immune cells, and sometimes even manage to recruit the immune cells to help the cancer grow.

For many scientists, the solution to this conundrum lies in the immune system itself. According to Professor Mikala Egeblad, who studies the tumor microenvironment at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, it’s important to understand that “the tumor is not just cancer cells in isolation. You can’t understand them without understanding the environment in which they live.” But by understanding the ways in which the environment itself contributes to tumor growth, researchers have become better equipped to disrupt that environment in ways that can turn the tide.

For example, Dr. Egeblad’s laboratory performed a test in which they added interferon-gamma, a signal used by immune cells to communicate with one another, in combination with an immune boosting substance called MPLA (monophosphoryl lipid A), to a petri dish containing tumor-associated macrophages and breast cancer cells. As a result, the macrophages not only turned against the cancer cells, but the process resulted in the recruitment of killer T-cells to join in the attack.

This breakthrough is only one of many that belongs to an emerging group of cancer therapies known as immunotherapy.

What is Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is any effort aimed at boosting or enhancing the immune system’s ability to identify and attack cancer cells. As Dr. Stephen Lynch, intake physician at Cancer Treatment Centers of America states, “the immune system is absolutely critical in fighting cancer. Immunotherapy is not going in there and killing the cancer cells. It's simply pulling the disguise off the cancer cell that's trying to hide and allowing the immune system to recognize it and do the job it’s designed to do.”

While immunotherapy is rapidly gaining momentum in the medical community, many of the potential solutions are still in the clinical trial phases. But new treatments continue to be tested and approved, and there are many different types already in use today. As science adapts and new theories emerge one thing remains clear, the immune system continues to be our best and most crucial system of defense. “I tell my patients that if we didn’t have an immune system, we'd all get cancer,” says Dr. Tan. While there will always be factors outside our control, we can do our part to make lifestyle choices that support a strong, healthy immune system in order to give our cells their best chance at performing their assigned roles.

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