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Immunotherapy refers to treatment approaches to cancer in which the immune system is harnessed and optimized to effectively attack cancer cells. In other words, immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that boosts the body’s immune system to fight off cancer. More recently, immunotherapy (using targeted gene therapy) has been used to treat and cure blood disorders such as sickle cell disease.
Immune therapies have generally included a number of different approaches:
- Targeted antibodies. Antibodies are engineered in the laboratory to recognize specific, targeted molecules on cancer cells. Therapy with these monoclonal antibodies has been effective in treating a number of cancers.
- Cell therapy. Researchers have developed therapies that harness the various types of natural cancer-fighting immune cells that exist within the body. There are a number of these cells, including T cells, NK cells, and NKT cells.
- Cancer vaccines. Another immunotherapeutic approach involves the development of cancer vaccines.
In the past 50 years, the overall cure rate for childhood cancer in the U.S. has improved dramatically. Despite these advances, childhood cancer remains the leading cause of non-accidental death in children. Far too many children die from this devastating disease. In addition, those treatments historically used to treat children with cancer, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, are often associated with unacceptable toxicities and side effects that frequently have a devastating adverse impact on children undergoing treatment. So, while we are curing over 80% of children with cancer in the U.S., many survive their cancer to face lifelong quality of life challenges or medical complications that resulted from their treatment.
In the past 10-15 years, tremendous advances have occurred in the field of tumor immunology that have made it possible for researchers to develop novel immune therapeutic approaches. Immunotherapy is especially exciting because it uses a patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer by specifically targeting their cancer cells, thus avoiding damage to non-cancerous normal tissues. These approaches provide the opportunity — not only to maintain — but also to improve, cure rates without lifelong side effects.