Understanding Immunotherapy Part 1: What is Immunotherapy?

By Amrita Bhatt, MRA Intern

If you follow science, you have probably heard about immunotherapy. In just the last year or two, immunotherapy has burst into the mainstream media, with coverage from the New York Times to Time Magazine bringing this emerging field to light beyond the scientific community. More recently, President Jimmy Carter helped put a face on immunotherapy when he announced its use in treating his metastatic melanoma.

While there is a broader understanding of immunotherapy now than there was a few years ago, there is a lot to discuss on this complex topic. We’ll be starting a blog series to help readers understand immunotherapy – and how it is being used to treat melanoma and other cancers.

Let’s start with a little background. Just 10 years ago, there were hardly any treatments available for patients diagnosed with melanoma, and a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma was an almost certain death sentence. Since MRA’s founding, the FDA has approved 11 therapies for melanoma. These have included targeted and immunotherapies – and combinations of the two. With nearly $68 million in funding to date, MRA continues to play an integral role in making revolutionary changes available for patients.

So, what is immunotherapy?

It’s a method of treatment that involves engaging the patient’s own immune system to fight cancerous cells. Four of the eleven FDA approved therapies since 2011 have been checkpoint therapies, including one combination therapy, and MRA’s funding has been vital to keeping the momentum going.

How does immunotherapy work?

Our immune system protects us by warding off foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. The immune system can also sometimes recognize cancer cells. However, since cancer cells arise from our normal cells, sometimes the cancer just isn’t different enough for the immune system to attack it.

In some cases, even when recognized as foreign, cancers use other strategies to evade the immune response. Immunotherapy works to boost your body’s immune response in order to attack cancer cells and prevent them from evading our defenses.

This video provides a visual explanation for how immunotherapy works.

Figuring out how to engage the immune system to fight cancer has been a goal for many years. MRA has funded a great deal of research in this area, including research on two proteins that allow cancer cells to escape attack from the immune system – PD-1 and CTLA-4.

In this continuing blog series, we’ll explain what these proteins are and how MRA funded researchers are strengthening our understanding of their role in cancer progression and treatment. Immunotherapy is broadening the scope of patient therapies and we must continue to fund vital research that keeps the momentum going.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding Immunotherapy Part 1: What is Immunotherapy?

  1. Pingback: Understanding Immunotherapy Part 2: PD-1 | Melanoma Focus

  2. Pingback: Understanding Immunotherapy Part 3: CTLA-4 | Melanoma Focus

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