Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, is a relatively new form of cancer treatment that began gaining recognition in the past few decades as it uses the body’s natural immune system to fight illnesses, like cancer. Our immune system is what helps the body fight against infections and diseases. Like many other forms of treatment, immunotherapy is complex and not all immunotherapies work the same.
WebMD notes that some immunotherapies are designed to boost the immune system, while others “try to teach it to attack very specific types of cells found in tumors.” Of course, each one also has it’s pros and cons. To get better informed on the topic of immunotherapy, let’s take a deeper look into each of the different types…
1. Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-Cell Therapy
Also known as CAR T-Cell Therapy or adoptive cell transfer therapy, or ACT. This form of immunotherapy is used to treat two different types of blood cancer: Tisagenlecleucel (Kymriah) and Axicabtagene ciloleucel (Yescarta). According to WebMD, tisagenlecleucel is “used to treat children and adults up to age 25 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) whose cancer didn’t respond to chemotherapy or who had the disease come back two or more times after treatment.” Axicabtagene ciloleucel on the other hand is for adults. These would be adults who have a type of large B-cell lymphoma like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Similar to tisagenlecleucel, the immunotherapy will only be used if the cancer didn’t respond to other treatments or if the cancer has come back after using those other treatments.
T cells are a type of white blood cell that the immune system uses to fight off diseases. “Antigens are foreign substances your immune system targets. When your immune system senses antigens in your body, it releases T cells as self-defense,” writes the source. CAR T-Cell therapy works to reprogram the body to use its T-cells to attack the cancer. The body will first go through a process called leukapheresis which takes a few hours, but then the doctors will take “take blood out of your body, separate some T cells from other white blood cells, then put your blood back in.” Technicians will then add in chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) to the T cells so they are better programed to attack the cancer cells. This reprogramming will take a few weeks. Before the cells are put back into the body, the patient might need to undergo chemotherapy just to cut down any other types of immune cells in the body. “This helps clear the path for the T cells to do their work. Once the CAR T cells are ready, your doctor puts them into your bloodstream,” writes WebMD. The CAR T cells will multiply and attack the cancer cells.
This type of immunotherapy will result in some serious side effects like a higher fever, low blood pressure, confusion, headaches, seizures and a weak immune system, low blood count, or severe infection, says WebMD.