Immunotherapy offers potentially life-extending alternative to late-stage cancer treatment

Dayton Physicians NetworkThe immune system of the human body is an incredibly elaborate system of organs, special cells and other substances that defend the body’s healthy cells from attack by all sorts of disease. Today, cancer physicians are learning to refine a method of using a patient’s own immune system to fight life-threatening, late-stage cancers by altering how the immune system recognizes, attacks and destroys cancer cells the same way it would any other invader.

Over the last 30 years, immunotherapy has become an important option in the treatment of some types of late-stage cancer. Sometimes called biologic or biotherapy, immunotherapy uses certain parts of a person’s immune system to fight cancer. Specially modified immunizing substances are created in labs, sometimes using the patient’s cancer to help build the attack force. From specifically modified antibodies to vaccinations, immunotherapy has become an important tool in the fight against many kinds of cancer.

Monoclonal antibody treatment, for example, involves the introduction of special antibodies that are produced in a lab. They work by recognizing specific proteins on cells, some on cancer cells and others on the cells of the immune system. The antibodies are designed to attack a specific area of the cancer cell and destroy it.

Another immunotherapy involves the administration of medications that reprogram the patient’s immune system in various ways. These come in the form of immune checkpoint inhibitors, which allow the body’s immune system essentially to open up, recognize, and attack cancer cells.

Cancer vaccines work like other types of inoculations and are used to help prevent or treat cancer. Several types of vaccines are being used in cancer treatment. Tumor cell vaccines, for example, are made from cancer cells removed from the patient. These cells are altered and killed and then reintroduced back into the patient, giving the immune system a specific target of both the reinjected cells and any others of the same makeup.

Another kind of vaccine uses antigens and works similarly but uses only one antigen instead of the entire tumor cell. They are used on explicit types of cancer but are not patient-specific. There are other general, nonspecific immunotherapies, as well, which still help boost the immune system and fight cancer cells.

Who can receive immunotherapy?

Candidates for immunotherapy are determined by the type and stage of the cancer being treated. It can be used to treat non-small cell lung cancer, for example. But essentially the tumor(s) must express certain proteins in order for the physicians to be confident they would respond to this treatment.

Kelly Miller, MS, MD, PhD, is a physician with the hematology and oncology division of Dayton Physicians Network. “When a patient has a good response to immunotherapy, he or she can live a number of years with certain types of stage four, incurable cancer,” she explained.

“With immunotherapy for a disease like metastatic or stage four lung cancer, patients have generally been treated only with chemotherapy, and given only a limited number of months to live” she continued. “For patients who respond to immunotherapy treatment, however, they’re living multiple years without ever receiving chemotherapy and all of the side effects associated with it.”

Not all patients or cancer types are suited for immunotherapy, but Dayton Physicians Network Hematology and Oncology physicians will help determine the best course of treatment. These therapies are approved by the Food and Drug Administration and are openly available here in the Dayton area. Patients do not have to go somewhere else in the country but have full access here at home through Dayton Physicians Network.

For more information, visit or call the Hematology and Medical Oncology department at 937-293-1622.

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