Using the body’s own immune system to fight cancer

03 February 2023

by TheStar

KUALA LUMPUR: It’s World Cancer Day tomorrow, an occasion to raise awareness surrounding cancer in its many forms and effects, as well as treatments and recovery.

Cancer-fighting technology has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years, said Sunway Medical Centre Velocity.

In a statement quoting its consultant clinical oncologist Dr Hafizah Zaharah Ahmad, it explained about immunotherapy, which uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

The immune system, she said, is like the “police force of our bodies” and is designed to protect the body from infection, illness and disease.

“It can also protect us from the development of cancer. Normally, it can detect and destroy faulty or mutated cells in the body and eliminates them before they become a significant threat,” she said.

But cancer can still develop when the immune system is not strong enough to kill cancer cells, or when the cancer cells hide from the immune system, she said, adding that cancer cells have the ability to camouflage and resemble normal cells.

Dr Hafizah said immunotherapy is more targeted as a cancer treatment, adding: “It can boost or change how the immune system works so it can recognise and kill cancer cells.”

As cancer cells start in normal cells, the immune system does not always recognise them as a threat, she explained.

“These cancer cells can push a ‘brake’ button on the immune cells so that the immune system will not attack them. Checkpoint inhibitors (a type of immunotherapy) take the ‘brakes’ off the immune system, which helps it recognise and attack the cancer cells,” she said.

Although immunotherapy may seem like the light at the end of a tunnel for cancer patients, Dr Hafizah warned that not all cancers respond well to the treatment.

“Therefore, patients have to first undergo a specific biomarker test such as the PD-L1 test that will need to be carried out on a cancer specimen to ensure that the patient will respond to the treatment,” she said.

According to her, immunotherapy can be used to treat various cancers, including non-small cell lung cancer, triple-negative breast cancer, head and neck cancer, cervical cancer, gastric cancer, oesophageal cancer, bladder cancer, melanoma, liver cancer, renal cell carcinoma, endometrial cancer and colon cancer.As with any form of treatment, she said, immunotherapy also presents its own sets of side effects.

“Generally, the treatment is well tolerated with possible side effects such as feeling tired, skin rash, or muscle or joint pain.

“Although rare, some patients also have allergic reactions including dizziness, fast heart rate, face swelling or breathing problems.

“Signs of autoimmune reactions that can cause serious problems may occur in the lungs, intestines, liver, hormone-making glands, kidneys and skin.

“Examples of symptoms to look out for are diarrhoea, severe abdominal pain, worsening cough, shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing,” Dr Hafizah said.

She said cancer research has pushed cancer treatment to new frontiers, leading to higher cancer control rates or cure rates, but recommends taking medical insurance to manage the rising cost of treatment. — Bernama