Immunotherapies are treatments that affect the patient’s immune system. Research is going on for years to identify and evaluate new therapeutic methods that have the highest possible action against cancer cells. The various approaches with cancer immunotherapy do have a highly promising potential.
It is important to understand what the body’s immune system has to do with the cancer disease. The fact that the immune system can fail in its defence function against cancer cells in completely healthy individuals is not really surprising, since we do know that tumours are growing in various tissues on the basis of the body’s own cells. Thus, tumour cells carry an antigen on their surface that is perceived by the immune system as “belonging to the body”. And so these cells can grow, and form into a solid tumour, or in an advanced stage, as metastases in other tissues or organs. In this case, we are not talking about a failure of the immune system. But we need to think about how to awaken the immune system, and enable the immune system to recognize these cells and fight against them.
In the field of oncology we differentiate between active and passive immunization. With an active immunization, the patient is given cancer vaccinations that are supposed to trigger an immune response in the patient’s immune system. The immune response should ideally lead to the death of tumour cells or at least, to a delayed tumour growth. In contrast, with the passive immunization, the patient receives antibodies or antibody fragments. These should selectively bind to the tumour cells and lead to their death.
Immunotherapy is a complex field and not well understood by doctors with no expertise in immunooncology and immunotherapy. Beyond doubt, the field of immunotherapy needs to be in the hands of oncologists and scientific professionals, since there are so many biomarker constellations that need to be considered in the decision making process of whether a patient will benefit from targeted immunotherapy or not.