Some of the most promising advances in cancer research in recent years involve treatments known as immunotherapy. What is immunotherapy? Immunotherapy refers to any treatment that uses the immune system to fight diseases, including cancer. Unlike chemotherapy, which kills cancer cells, immunotherapy acts on the cells of the immune system, to help them attack the cancer.
What are the types of immunotherapy? Drugs called checkpoint inhibitors are the most widely used form of immunotherapy for cancer. Another form of immunotherapy, called cell therapy, involves removing immune cells from the patient, altering them genetically to help them fight cancer, then multiplying them in the laboratory and dripping them, like a transfusion, back into the patient.
These antibodies are proteins that can attach to both a cancer cell and a T-cell, that way bringing them close together so the T-cell can attack the cancer. Unlike childhood vaccines, which are aimed at preventing diseases like measles and mumps, cancer vaccines are aimed at treating the disease once the person has it.The idea is to prompt the immune system to attack the cancer by presenting it with some piece of the cancer.
The only vaccine approved specifically to treat cancer in the United States is Provenge, for prostate cancer.Which types of cancer are treated with immunotherapy? Checkpoint inhibitors have been approved to treat advanced melanoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cancers of the lung, kidney and bladder. Cell therapy has been used mostly for blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.
Which cancer drugs are checkpoint inhibitors? The four on the market are: Yervoy and Opdivo, made by Bristol-Myers Squibb; Keytruda, by Merck; and Tecentriq, by Genentech. Joint and muscle pain, and rheumatoid arthritis can also occur, and the immune system can also attack vital glands like the thyroid and pituitary. Many insurers will pay if the drug has been approved for the type of cancer the patient has.Patients with cancers for which the drugs have not been approved may find insurers reluctant to pay, but may be able to get the drugs for free by volunteering for clinical trials.