Waging War Against Cancer: A Peek into Immunotherapy
Recent years have seen the emergence of cancer as a globally feared and somewhat mysterious leading cause of death among populations. Certainly, its insidious nature crafts an unforgiving view in the eyes of the common man. Many, however, may overlook the pathological nature of cancer and the diversity within its general term.
The basis of every tumor is unchecked cell division, typically stemming from the mutation of essential mitosis-controlling genes. Its progression follows from uncontrolled and disorganized cell proliferation (with a number of other unusual microscopic features), and may culminate in malignancy by metastasis.
Depending on the tumor location and degree of differentiation, tumor cells can present with a variety of histological and functional abnormalities, and this diversity presents patient-specific complications in the non-uniform response of tumor cells to traditional cancer treatments. As it is, chemotherapy and radiotherapy risk multiple side effects because of collateral damage to normal body cells, manifesting as severe pain, neurological deficits, hypothyroidism, nausea and vomiting, immunosuppression, anemia, hormonal disturbances—not to mention the possibility of drug resistance.
However, another approach to cancer treatment is currently being explored in immunotherapy. Before discussing the principles of immunotherapy, it is important to question why the immune system can’t defeat cancer by itself. Cancer cells are essentially deviant self cells, owing to which the immune system usually fails to recognize them as ‘foreign’. Furthermore, cancer cells can learn to evade immune cells by constantly evolving and by removing identifying molecules from their cell surface.
Immunotherapy, therefore, aims to boost the immune system in its fight against cancer. The ways to accomplish this are many and still in the process of research; one of them uses monoclonal antibodies to interfere with cancer cells’ ability to fool the immune system into overlooking them. Especially useful against melanoma and smoking-induced lung cancer, this method is often referred to as ‘checkpoint blockade’.
More direct methods involve genetically engineering immune cells to target tumors more effectively and powerfully—T lymphocytes are often the first to be engineered into CAR-modified T cells. Cancer therapy can also be individualized in order to utilize a patient’s own existing immune cells, which can therefore provide information about the genetic profile of that particular tumor and target its mutational abnormalities specifically.
Production of more T-cells and other cellular methods aside, lifestyle changes are equally necessary on a macroscopic level. The principles of cancer immunotherapy rely on adequate preparation of the immune system according to individual distinctions, and given the less externally-caused and more intrinsic nature of cancer this may signal the advent of a more effective and patient-friendly treatment method into conventional therapy.
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