Using Your Own Immune System to Fight Cancer

The immune system is the system in your body that fights off infection. Immunotherapy is a form of medical treatment that activates your immune system to help fight cancer. 

There are many different types of immune cells in your body. Different cells fight different types of cancer. For example, one way the immune system fights cancer is by sending out a special form of white blood cells called T cells: 
The T cells see cancer as “foreign” cells that don’t belong in the body. 
The T cells attack and try to destroy the cancerous cells. 
When the cancer cells are killed, a “checkpoint” in the immune system stops the T cells from attacking. This protects healthy cells.

But sometimes cancer can outsmart the immune system:
Cancer cells may trick the immune system into thinking they’re healthy cells. 
Cancer cells may activate the “checkpoint” process. This can make the immune system stop the attack on the cancer too early. 

How cancer immunotherapy works
Currently, there are three major types of immunotherapy:
Immune checkpoint inhibitorsThis approach uses drugs to stop the “checkpoint” process. This lets the T cells keep fighting cancer. 
There are several FDA-approved checkpoint inhibitor drugs currently in use. 
Some of the brand names are Yervoy®, Keytruda®, and Opdivo®.

Personalized cell therapy
This approach adapts the body’s own immune cells to make them better cancer fighters. There are two ways this is done:
By increasing the number of immune system cells so that they overwhelm the cancer.
By changing the genetic make-up of the immune cells. This can make the immune system target specific types of cancer.
One current type of personalized cell therapy being used is called CAR T cell therapy.

Cancer vaccines
Researchers are creating vaccines that may teach the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer before it can take hold or come back. 
Often cancer will spread to other parts of the body, or return long after the first cancer has gone.
Vaccines may be able to remember previous cancers and start the correct immune response as soon as the cancer re-appears.
This approach is very new. Researchers are still working on creating vaccines for different types of cancers.
Sometimes more than one type of immunotherapy or immunotherapy drug will be given at the same time. Immunotherapy may also be given along with chemotherapy and radiation. This may make the traditional cancer treatments work better.

The Stony Brook approach to immunotherapy
Immunotherapy is one of the current advances in cancer care. Every person already has an immune system that fights infections. Everyone wins if we can power the immune system to beat cancer.

We want to discover treatments that can have a big impact on our patients in Suffolk and Nassau Counties. We aim to make cancer care more effective, less painful and more convenient for our patients. 

We also have a very active cancer immunotherapy clinical trial program. Clinical trials allow patients to volunteer to receive immunotherapy treatments that are being developed. 
For more information about cancer immunotherapy or to ask about a clinical trial, call (631) 638-0846.