For decades, there were few new developments in the treatment of mesothelioma and other types of cancer. Recent years, however, have seen exciting new breakthroughs. One of the most promising is mesothelioma immunotherapy.
Mesothelioma Immunotherapy Turns Good Cells Against Bad
The strongest disease fighter – stronger than most drugs – is our body’s own immune system. One of the reasons that mesothelioma, and cancer in general, is so hard to treat is that the cancer cells find ways of tricking or disabling immune responses that would otherwise kill rogue cancer cells.
Mesothelioma immunotherapy unmasks the tricksters. These cutting-edge treatments, which are more and more widely used every day, attack the mechanisms that mesothelioma tumors use to bypass the immune system. They activate the body’s immune response and sic these fighter cells on the mesothelioma cancer cells.
Here’s one way to think of cancer treatments: imagine that you had a short circuit somewhere inside the walls of your house. You could take a sledgehammer and start knocking down walls, hoping to knock out the short circuit in the process. This is like traditional chemotherapy and radiation, which take a sledgehammer to your mesothelioma tumor. These treatments can be effective, but they also take down a lot of the wall. In addition, with this kind of blunt force treatment, you might hit the wrong spot on the wall and miss part of the short circuit.
Immunotherapy drugs, on the other hand, take a more sophisticated approach. It’s like hiring an electrician to pinpoint the source and cause of the short circuit, go right to the spot, and correct the wiring.
There are a number of different mesothelioma immunotherapy treatments. Each one targets a specific cancer mechanism. Each one helps the immune system overcome a particular type of cancer cell trick, so your killer immune cells can go after the sneaky cancer cells.
Basis for Mesothelioma Immunotherapy
Cancer cells are mutant human cells. They don’t die when they are supposed to, the way normal cells do. This allows cancer tumors to multiply and grow out of control, forming dangerous tumors.
Your immune system is programmed to attack and expel cells that don’t belong in your body. Unlike bacteria and viruses, which are recognizable as invaders, cancer cells can masquerade as normal cells. This allows them to hide from the immune system.
One of the ways that your immune system identifies whether a cell belongs in your body or is an outsider is something called Major Histocompatibility Complex or MHC. MHC is the way cells talk to each other. It’s a molecular language that immune system cells use to identify foreign or dangerous cells.
When the immune cells detect a cell whose MHC tells them it doesn’t belong, they attack. The immune system deploys one of several types of killer cells to get rid of the alien cell. Your immune system can create antibodies to kill unhealthy cells or put a target on their backs for other immune cells to bring down. Immune cells can kill outsiders by attacking them or binding to them.
Our immune system is a resourceful, powerful tool for fighting off disease. For every time that we get sick, our immune system may have prevented many other illnesses from ever getting a toehold. Mesothelioma immunotherapy harnesses this natural power to fight cancer cells.
Sneaky Mesothelioma Cancer Cells
As clever as our immune system is, sometimes cancer is even more clever. Mesothelioma and other cancer cells have evolved ways to sneak around the immune system.
Some cancer cells send out a protein called programmed cell death protein 1 or PD-1 for short. This protein deflects the immune system’s powerful T cells and prevents them from killing the cancer cells.
Another way mesothelioma cancer cells win against the immune system is a numbers game. While your immune system recognizes and attacks some cancer cells, others are busy multiplying out of control and out of sight of your immune cells.
Mesothelioma Immunotherapy to the Rescue!
Researchers have learned more about how cancer cells and the immune system operate. This has allowed them to devise treatments that harness the strengths of our immune cells and take advantage of the weaknesses of cancer cells. Mesothelioma immunotherapy has grown out of this research.
Different tumors respond to different tactics, so mesothelioma immunotherapy works best when it is targeted to your specific tumor.
Mesothelioma immunotherapy can work by sending in reinforcements for your immune system. The cancer cells may have become too numerous for your immune system to deal with on its own. In addition, traditional cancer treatments may have killed off some immune system cells along with the cancer cells. A mesothelioma immunotherapy called adaptive cellular therapy sends in reinforcements: doctors take out some of your T cells, grow more in the lab, and send the strong new cells back into your body to do their job.
Another type of mesothelioma immunotherapy attaches antibodies to cancer cells to flag them for destruction by immune system cells. These cells may have been masquerading as harmless cells and the immunotherapy drugs expose them.
Scientists have also developed a vaccine technique to boost your body’s immune response to mesothelioma, similar to a vaccination for mumps or tetanus. A very small number of mesothelioma cancer cells are extracted, neutralized, then placed in a lab culture with baby immune cells. Those cells grow up to be mesothelioma fighters. When they are grown, they are reinjected into your body, ready to attack your mesothelioma tumor.
Some immunotherapies work by blocking the PD-1 protein that cancer cells use to shut down your immune response. These therapies only work on tumors that deploy the PD-1 defense. More than half of mesothelioma tumors do not respond to this immunotherapy, but it’s a powerful tool for those that do.
Another immunotherapy technique places a type of protein called a cytokine directly on your tumor. Cytokines activate the immune system’s powerful killer T cells. This type of treatment presents a challenge for mesothelioma immunotherapy, because the tumors can be hard to reach through surgery. Researchers are looking at other ways to deliver cytokines to mesothelioma tumors. One possibility is to give the cytokines a ride on virus cells. The viruses would invade the tumors and deliver immunotherapy to kill them without making you ill.
Mesothelioma immunotherapy is not a magic bullet or a cure for mesothelioma – yet. These treatments have been very successful for some mesothelioma patients. There is reason to hope they will help even more in the future.