Most of the time, it’s not the primary tumor that kills. It’s cancer that has spread. 

It’s the immune system’s job to attack foreign invaders and keep you healthy. 

So, if your immune system could be trained to recognize and destroy cancer cells, it could lower the chances of cancer recurrence.

Scientists may be on the threshold of doing just that.

Two researchers have been awarded a two-year $200,000 Clinic and Laboratory Integration Program Grant by the Cancer Research Institute (CRI). CRI is a nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering the development of immune system-based cancer therapies. 

One of the researchers is Stephen Schoenberger, Ph.D., a professor at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology. The other is Dr. Ezra Cohen, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine Moores Cancer Center. 

Schoenberger and Cohen will use the grant to study whether the immune systems of patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma contain immune cells capable of attacking tumor cells.

Then they’ll try to find the best way to harness them.

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The Promise of Immunotherapy

Doctors generally treat cancer by assaulting the primary tumor with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. 

Even when those treatments successfully eliminate the primary tumor, some cancer cells can survive. In time, those cells can settle in another part of the body and multiply.

A recurrence is often resistant to first-line chemotherapy drugs. Prolonged chemotherapy can also cause some collateral damage and create quality-of-life issues. 

The immune system naturally recognizes some cancer cells and destroys them before they have a chance to take hold. Other types of cancer cells are able to evade the immune system. 

The researchers want to determine how immune cells that can recognize and destroy tumor cells emerge and how they can be encouraged. The resulting treatment would help the immune system track down wandering cancer cells and destroy them before they find a new home.

That means the threat of recurrence could be considerably reduced. 

“Cancer has ended meaningful, happy, productive lives far too often, far too early,” Schoenberger told Healthline. 

Immunotherapy may be the treatment that turns the tide.

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How Immunotherapy Works

Immunotherapy is an approach that involves using the immune system to control or wipe out cancer. 

Prophylactic vaccines, like those for measles or polio, introduce an antigen to the immune system. They’re intended to create a long-lasting immune response so that if you come across the pathogens again, you’ll survive an encounter with them. The vaccines are not specific to each patient. 

Therapeutic cancer vaccines work differently. They’re designed to treat existing disease. They’re given to people who have already been diagnosed with cancer. 

The researchers envision a future where doctors will be able to sequence through tumor DNA and compare it to control DNA.

They will then be able to prepare a unique vaccine based on molecular differences. The immune system would be able to attack cancer cells anywhere in the body. 

It’s doubtful the vaccine alone would be enough. Most patients would probably still need some surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. According to Schoenberger, those treatments might do a better job of knocking down existing tumor burden. 

He explained that a patient who is presenting with cancer is usually not in the best of health. The immune system has already failed to respond to antigens in the tumor. 

What the vaccine will do is make it less likely that the cancer will return. It might also be more effective in treating cancer that has spread. 

Schoenberger said clinical trials are already being done in which patients are receiving vaccines against their own tumors. 

The FDA approved the first cancer treatment vaccine in 2010. That vaccine is used in some men with metastatic prostate cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, it hasn’t been shown to stop metastatic prostate cancer from growing. Studies are now under way to see if it will be more successful in men with less advanced prostate cancer.

Schoenberger and Cohen have funding for head and neck cancer, so that’s where their focus will be. Schoenberger believes the research will be applicable for any cancer for which neo-antigens can be found. 

“Patient-specific immunology is coming,” said Schoenberger. “We are at the threshold of a more logical way of treating cancer because it treats everybody’s cancer and immune system as individual and unique.” 

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