Sunday 06 December 2009, 19:05

Skin cancer immunotherapy

Skin cancer treatment: immunotherapy as a viable option

Skin cancer immunotherapy

The immune system plays an important role in protecting human body against the development and metastatic spread of neoplasias. It performs this function through two main mechanisms: by eliminating cancer cells before they establish a tumor or by attacking cancer cells after they become established as a tumor. In rare cases the immune system alone is sufficient to completely eliminate an established cancer and bring about spontaneous cure.


These concepts are the basis of modern immunotherapy (biotherapy or biological therapy), which is a form of cancer treatment directed to re-establishing, stimulating or enhancing the immune system responses against cancer cells. Immunotherapy can be either “active”, when it stimulates the patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer, or “passive”, when it is based on the administration of antibodies directed against tumor-specific antigens (therefore without inducing an active response by the patient’s own immune system).


Currently immunotherapy is still in the experimental phase, although it appears to hold much promise for the treatment of cancer. It may be used alone or, more effectively, in combination with other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery. There are several types of immunotherapy used to treat cancer, such as cytokine therapy, monoclonal antibody therapy and vaccine therapy.


Cytokine therapy involves the administration of immunomodulatory cytokines to activate the immune system. To date interferon-alpha and interleukin-2 are the only cytokines approved by FDA for oncologic indications, although many other cytokines are being studied in clinical trials as potential immunotherapeutic agents. Their action is based on the activation of the antitumoral response of the patient’s own immune system. Therefore cytokines’ effectiveness relies on the high efficiency of the patient’s immune functions.


Monoclonal antibody therapy, which is still under investigation, may be effective when the patient’s immune system is weak or compromised, since it doesn’t require an active intervention of the patient’s immune system. It is based on the administration of monoclonal antibodies directed against tumor-specific antigens, capable of inhibiting tumor growth and promoting its regression.


Vaccine therapy is based on the same principles of infectious disease prevention. Tumor vaccines containing tumor-specific antigens are administered in order to teach the immune system to recognise cancer antigens and destroy them, thereby preventing both local tumor progression and metastatic spread. In addition, since immune system is capable of achieving “immunological memory”, vaccine therapy is helpful for long-term immunity and may be used to prevent tumor recurrence.


Regardless of the type, immunotherapy offers at least the same effectiveness as chemotherapy, but with greater safety and far fewer side-effects. That’s why it offers much hope for a future effective treatment of a great variety of tumors.


By Chiara De Carli

Category: Cancer

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