Research on immunotherapy as cancer treatment continues

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons  National Institute of Health Visible through an electron microscope, two T-Cells attack a cancer cell. This is one type of biological therapy offered as an alternative to chemotherapy.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

National Institute of Health Visible through an electron microscope, two T-Cells attack a cancer cell. This is one type of biological therapy offered as an alternative to chemotherapy.


Cancer patients worldwide could soon be offered a new, less painful form of treatment that makes use of the body’s built-in arsenal to combat the disease. Doctors and researchers have been studying the human body’s immune system as a method to treat and prevent serious disease for centuries, but it wasn’t until the development of immunology that immunotherapy could be considered as an alternative to traditional cancer treatments.

According to the National Cancer Institute, immunotherapy, also known as biological therapy, is a method of combatting and preventing disease. A well-known example is vaccination for disease prevention — vaccines train the body to combat diseases the body may encounter in the future, essentially triggering the body’s built-in immune responses. Immunotherapy as a cancer treatment can take many forms, but it would essentially use cells produced by the immune system, or similar cells produced in a laboratory, to slow the growth of cancer cells, to prevent the spread of malignant cells or to destroy cancerous tissues. The National Cancer Institute states that the biological therapies currently being developed include various approaches, from targeted antibodies, antigens and even viruses made in labs, to T-Cells extracted from the patient’s own body that are then altered to fight the cancerous cells.

Certain immunotherapy methods specifically target the dendritic cells of the body that detect potentially harmful substances. These cells then alert the other components of the immune system to attack the intruder. According to the Hasumi Foundation website, this method, called Human Initiated Therapeutic Vaccine therapy, developed by Dr. Kenichiro Hasumi, has been under development since 2004. As reported in the journal Cancer Immunology, Immunotherapy, early tests indicate that dendritic cells combined with activated T-Cells — the “watchers” and the “fighters” — already present in the immune system could help in combatting cancer.

According to the journal Human Vaccines and Immunotherapies, part of the difficulty of fighting cancer is in that cancer cells resemble healthy cells, leading to treatments that also destroy healthy tissues. By injecting specifically targeted dendritic cells into the malignant tumors, doctors could avoid unnecessarily destroying healthy tissues and quickly and could specifically eliminate cancerous tissue. Immunotherapy poses a hopeful alternative to current cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, which often have painful and debilitating side effects.

Shelby Allen ’20 witnessed firsthand the kind of physical havoc chemotherapy can wreak on a person’s body when her aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. “[My aunt] lost all of her hair, she was very tired all of the time, she had burns from the treatment and it would often cause vomiting. It was really hard, I was about 10 when it happened, so I was still really unaware of what the outcome might be,” Allen said. Though Allen’s aunt is now in remission, the physical cost of treatment was difficult for both her aunt and her family and made the already taxing disease more onerous.

Immunotherapy provides a more personalized and precise method of combatting cancer, a procedure that could reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Dr. James L. Gulley, a researcher with the National Cancer Institute, wrote in Human Vaccines and Immunotherapies, “A lack of significant side effects ... indicate a bright future for therapeutic vaccines in our increasingly more sophisticated, and from a patient standpoint, better tolerated fight against cancer.”

Though we are a long way from replacing more traditional cancer treatment methods, the continuing development of immunotherapy, including therapeutic vaccinations, could eventually provide a less intrusive alternative to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. If accomplished, this would be a welcome piece of news for cancer patients.