The body has an immune system which protects it from disease. In some it works very comprehensively and efficiently and in others not so well. But research has been done on how the immune system can be assisted in recognizing cancer cells and then disposing of them.
The substances used for immunotherapy are called Biological Response Modifiers (BRMs). Some occur naturally in the body and others can now be made in a laboratory to mimic the natural ones. Several approaches are being taken in how to use BRMs to enhance the immune system’s response to cancerous cells. The BRMs may:
- Help the immune system prevent cancer cell growth
- Make the cancer cells more vulnerable to destruction
- Change the cancer cell growth pattern to more closely resemble normal cells
- Prevent cancer cells from spreading to other body areas
- Suppress body responses that allow cancerous cells to grow
- Stop or reverse the process by which a normal cell becomes cancerous
So far studies have used only one drug at a time. Mesotheliomas have several ways of avoiding detection by the immune system, so future studies will be combining immunotherapy with other treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
There are several types of cancer vaccines and they work a little differently than the familiar measles or mumps vaccines. An example is tumor cell vaccines. They contain cancer cells taken from the patient and altered so as to be more recognizable by the immune system. They are then injected back into the patient in hopes that the immune system will recognize the antigens (special molecules) on the altered cells and therefore attack other cells with those same antigens – namely, the mesothelioma.
Medical research is always complex and time-consuming and the many possibilities must be tested separately to obtain clarity of results. Testing procedures for obtaining FDA approval take several years and require studies of differing sizes. So FDA approval is slow and expensive to obtain. Time will tell whether immunotherapy will produce successful cancer prevention.