Definition & Overview
Immunotherapy is a form of treatment designed to boost the body’s immune system to help fight off certain types of diseases. Also termed biologic therapy, it is primarily designed for cancer treatment using organic or synthetic substances to stop the spread of cancer cells. It also improves the function of the immune system particularly in targeting carcinogenic cells and suppressing certain immune reactions.
The body’s first line of defense is the immune system, where component cells and substances work together to kill various pathogens and foreign bodies that cause infections and diseases. Cancer cells, however, are not foreign bodies but are formerly healthy cells that suddenly alter and evolve, making it difficult for the immune system to detect, track, and attack them. It is from this scenario that several immunotherapy protocols were developed.
Aside from cancer, immunotherapy is also used to treat severe allergic conditions and autoimmune diseases as well as prevent organ rejection for organ transplant patients.
There are several types of immunotherapy including monoclonal antibodies, T-cell therapy, cancer vaccines, oncolytic virus therapy, and non-specific immunotherapy, among others. New techniques are consistently being developed to continually address a wide range of cancer types and other medical conditions.
Who Should Undergo and Expected Results
Immunotherapy is recommended for:
Cancer patients - Immunotherapy is specifically beneficial for patients with different types of cancer. To achieve maximum results, this therapy is often combined with conventional treatment methods such as chemotherapy.
Patients with persistent bacterial infection - Immunotherapy is also applicable in treating persistent bacterial infections like hepatitis C and HHV6 infections.
Organ transplant recipients – These patients also undergo immunotherapy to suppress the immune system reaction against the newly transplanted organ so the body will not reject it.
Patients with autoimmune diseases - Immunosuppressive drugs are also used to manage autoimmune diseases such as myocarditis, lupus nephritis, psoriasis, and other similar diseases.
Allergy patients – Patients suffering from different allergies are also advised to try immunotherapy to reduce the body’s reactions to specific allergens. In this case, immunotherapy is applied not to treat an allergy but to lessen its severity. This type of treatment is especially indicated for those prone to severe allergic attacks and cannot avoid exposure to allergens.
As for the expected results, most patients report improved conditions following immunotherapy sessions. However, the success of the treatment depends on several factors, such as the severity of cancer or disease at the onset of treatment, the physical condition of the patient, the therapy’s duration, and how responsive the body’s immune system is. There have been significant breakthroughs in different areas of cancer treatment research, especially when immunotherapy is combined with other treatment modalities. A good number of patients reported achieving remission following immunotherapy.
Immunosuppressive drugs are also effective in preventing the rejection of newly transplanted organs in transplant patients. Patients suffering from autoimmune disease also report high satisfaction in achieving relief from their symptoms.
How is the Procedure Performed?
Most immunotherapy agents are administered through intravenous (IV) method, or injecting the substance directly into the vein for faster absorption. An example of this type of treatment is the introduction of cytokines through IV to fight off tumour cells. Therapies involving immune system blockade are also typically administered through IV.
There are also topical immunotherapy agents available. Several skin cancers and diseases are being treated with the application of an immune enhancement cream directly to the skin.
Immunosuppressive drugs are also taken orally. This method applies to most transplant patients, who are given oral immunotherapy agents for immune suppression.
Another option of administering immunotherapy is going directly into the bladder. Termed intravesical therapy, it is specially designed for the treatment of early stages of bladder cancer. This method involves the insertion of a catheter into the urethra and directing it to the bladder. Attenuated bacteria carrying immunotherapy agents are then injected via the catheter.
Possible Risks and Complications
Those getting immunotherapy intravenously may experience pain and swelling at the needle site. Itching and soreness at the site are also possible.
Some patients report episodes of nausea and vomiting following immunotherapy sessions. In some cases, fever and chills occur as the immune system reacts to the substances being introduced into the body. Other symptoms reported are fatigue, erratic blood pressure, headache, and muscle pain. Others experience hair loss and increased risk of infections.
There is also the possibility of heart palpitations, diarrhea, and weight gain due to fluid retention. Edema or swelling due to fluid buildup is also one complication reported by some patients. Severe allergic reactions can also happen, though this rarely occurs.
Some immunotherapy agents can also cause toxic reactions in the body if administered for a long period of time.
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