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Health Information The Promise of Immunotherapy

Cancer treatment harnesses the body's immune system

The body has an amazing secret weapon: the immune system. Because of its power to protect and restore the body, it has inspired a whole field of treatment — immunotherapy — that harnesses the body’s own immune system to fend off, and recover from, disease.

The system at work

The immune system goes to work when the body detects an invader, such as unfriendly bacteria or foreign matter, known as an antigen. The presence of the antigen triggers cell and chemical activity that produces antibodies, varieties of white blood cells that destroy the invaders. This process usually takes place seamlessly. However, when the intruders are complex cancer cells, the immune system often needs a little extra push.

The field of immunotherapy, or the use of stem cell therapies and vaccines, gives the body that push. Robert Aiken, MD, a neuro-oncologist, is researching ways to inspire the immune system to go after glioblastoma, a kind of malignant brain tumor.

In particular, Aiken is studying a vaccine for glioblastoma multiforme that, while it won’t prevent cancer, is intended to kick-start the body’s immune system to help it slow the growth of the cancer cells that form a glioblastoma.

Outside motivation

How does the vaccine inspire the body to heal itself? Cells that help antibodies recognize antigens, which are known as dendritic cells, and cancer tumor cells are extracted from a patient. The two are combined so that dendritic cells are able to identify the cancer cells.

Then the cancer cells are removed from the mix and the dendritic cells, now trained to set the immune system in motion against the tumor, are injected into the patient. Simply put, the vaccine, known as the DCVax vaccine, is designed to help the body mount a response that kills cancer cells, slowing the growth of the tumor.

The vaccine must be given repeatedly in order to continue to boost the patient’s natural immune responsiveness, which may work to keep the cancer in check and prolong life. The vaccine is still in clinical trials, but the hope is that it will be added to the list of treatment options for patients with brain tumors, alongside current standards of care.

Encouraging new alternatives

Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and biologic therapies are among the treatments currently available at The Coleman Foundation Comprehensive Brain Tumor Clinic at Rush. The clinic also offers patients the opportunity to enroll in clinical trials — such as the ones Aiken continues to run — to test the DCVax vaccine.

He’s also embarking on another study to look at an antibody that might aid patients with recurrent brain tumors. Will it inspire a next step in the attack on these life-altering intruders? Follow the progress of research at Rush to find out.

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