Mesothelioma is most often treated with the more traditional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. However, new experimental therapies like immunotherapy are being used more and more. These other therapies give the patient more choices to control his or her mesothelioma symptoms. Immunotherapy is not a cure for mesothelioma, but it is continually being researched in order to eventually achieve improved results.
How Does Immunotherapy Work?
Immunotherapy makes changes to the immune system of a patient so that it will respond to, and fight diseases it normally would not. In a patient with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related cancers, the immune system does not react the way it should to destroy cancer cells. An immune system that is healthy and functioning properly doesn’t recognize cancer cells as foreign and, therefore, does not destroy them. Immunotherapy attempts to convince the immune system to recognize those cancer cells as foreign cells.
In order to understand immunotherapy it is necessary to know how the body’s immune system can tell the difference between cells that are part of the body and cells that are foreign. The immune system identifies and reacts to antigens, which are molecules that exist on the surface of any cell. A normal immune system will destroy cells that make foreign antigens, but it won’t react to a cell that has an antigen that is produced by the body, even if it is a foreign cell like cancer. The concept of immunotherapy is to force the immune system into recognizing that the antigens found on cancer cells are foreign.
One type of active immunotherapy is a vaccine designed to trigger the immune system to prevent a disease. Vaccines for cancer are made to fight diseases that are already in the body.
To create a mesothelioma vaccine either entire cancer cells are taken from the patient, or only the antigens are removed from the cells. These are then changed in a laboratory in a way that makes them recognizable by the patient’s immune system. They are then re-injected into the patient.
These treatments are made using components not found in the patient’s body. This type of immunotherapy does not try to make the immune system destroy cancer cells, as is the case with active immunotherapy.
One type of immunotherapy is monoclonal antibody therapy. Antibodies are produced by the immune system to fight infection. A healthy immune system produces antibodies that bind themselves to foreign antigens and cells. This makes those foreign cells targets to be destroyed by other parts of the immune system.
In monoclonal antibody therapy, cancer cells are taken from the patient and put through a process that produces antibodies that recognize the cancer antigens. These antibodies are injected into the patient’s body where they bind themselves to the tumor cells. If the treatment is a success, the immune system recognizes these monoclonal antibodies and destroys the cancer cells.
Both active and passive immunotherapy use cells from the patient’s own body to create cells or antibodies. Non-specific immunotherapy does not use cells from the patient. It uses cytokines, which are molecules that have control over the immune system by making different immune cells communicate. This type of immunotherapy is normally combined with other immunotherapy treatments like using the cytokine called Interferon with a cancer vaccine.