Have you ever wondered why cancer cells seem to go undetected from the immune systemEM-MUNE SIS-TEM — A network of proteins and cells that work together to stop invaders from taking over the body and causing many problems? After all, it’s your immune system’s job to detect and fight foreign invaders in the body. Before you start pointing fingers, it’s not completely your immune system’s fault. Cancer cells are clever—they know how to trick the immune system into thinking they’re like all the other normal cells. It’s essentially a magic trick where the cancer cells become invisible.
The good news is, every magic trick has a solution; you just have to learn it. In the case of cancer cells, the solution is immunotherapyEM-MUN-O-THAIR-AH-PEE — Anticancer medication that alters the function of immune cells, triggering the immune.
Immunotherapy is a lot like targeted therapyTAR-GET-TED THAIR-AH-PEE — Anticancer medication that attaches to a specific protein receptor and blocks the receptor’s normal function to stop cancer growth, but the immune system is what makes it unique. If the target of the medication is a part of the immune system itself, it’s immunotherapy. Immunotherapy works to alter the immune cells’ function, triggering the immune system to fight a disease.
There are a few categories of immunotherapy, but checkpoint inhibitorsCHECK-POINT IN-HIB-IT-ER — A type of medication with proteins that block the signals that allow cancers to hide from the immune system are the newest and most commonly used for treating many different types of cancer. Checkpoint inhibitors can also be broken down into three types. Doctors refer to them as PD-1 inhibitorsP-D-ONE IN-HIB-IT-ER — A type of checkpoint inhibitor (immunotherapy) that works to override the signal of the PD-L1, unlocking the cell and activating the T cell against the cancer cells, PD-L1 inhibitorsP-D-L-ONE IN-HIB-IT-ER — A type of checkpoint inhibitor (immunotherapy) that works to prevent PD-1 and PD-L1 from connecting, blocking the unwanted “stop signal” sent by the cancer cell, and CTLA-4 inhibitorsC-T-L-A-FOUR IN-HIB-IT-ER — A type of checkpoint inhibitor (immunotherapy) that works to activate the immune system by overriding a false stop signal sent by cancer cells.
Each type works a little differently to remove the cancer cellSEL — One of the most basic components of all living things that together form the entire body and contains many smaller parts that guide its function’s invisibility shield, but once the cancer cell is revealed to the immune system, immune cells can find and kill the cancer cell.
The science behind checkpoint inhibitors is super complex and can be confusing, but here’s the basic idea.
The cancer cells get their magic from specific proteinsPRO-TEEN — A naturally occurring, large, complex substance made up of amino acids that is an essential part of living organisms. When one of the magic proteins (key) interlocks with a particular protein on an immune cell (lock), the cancer cell sends a signal to the immune cell, telling it to stop. When the key fits into the lock, the immune cells won’t respond. The immune cells are locked out and unable to find (and destroy) the cancer.
So, to keep the cancer cell “open” to detection by immune cells, checkpoint inhibitors try to interfere with the connection between the two cells. Some checkpoint inhibitors try to prevent the proteins from connecting, while others try to override the lock. Either way, by blocking these proteins, the immune system is woken up and can attack the cancer cells.1
The landscape of cancer treatmentTREET-MINT — Techniques to help eliminate or control a disease continues to change almost every day. Not too long ago, chemotherapyKEY-MOW-THAIR-AH-PEE — Medication used to treat cancer was the only option for many patients. That is until scientists discovered targeted and hormonal therapyHORE-MOAN-OL THAIR-AH-PEE — Anticancer medication used to target estrogen and progesterone receptors. Nowadays, targeted therapy has become the dominant treatment option for many cancer patients. Some even regard it as the “magic bullet” of cancer care.
Building upon targeted therapy’s concepts, immunotherapy has become one of the most significant advances in cancer care to date. Immunotherapy can be used alone or in combination with other immunotherapy medications, targeted therapy, and chemotherapy.
Immunotherapy has significantly changed the lives of patients, improving quality of life while also helping patient to live much longer. Plus, since immunotherapy tends to have fewer side effects, many patients can use it for a long time—many years in fact.
- La-Beck NM, Jean GW, Huynh C, Alzghari SK, Lowe DB. Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors: New Insights and Current Place in Cancer Therapy. Pharmacotherapy: The Journal of Human Pharmacology and Drug Therapy. 2015;35(10):963-976.