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What Immunotherapy is, what it is for and how it works

Immunotherapy, also known as biological therapy, is a type of treatment that strengthens the immune system by making the person’s own body better able to fight viruses, bacteria and even cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Generally, immunotherapy is initiated when other forms of treatment are not having resulted in the treatment of the disease and, therefore, its use should always be evaluated with the doctor responsible for the treatment.

In the case of cancer, immunotherapy can be used together with chemotherapy in cases of difficult treatment, seeming to improve the chances of curing certain types of cancer, such as melanoma, lung cancer or kidney cancer, for example.

How Immunotherapy Works

Depending on the type of disease and its degree of development, immunotherapy can work in different ways, which include:

  • Stimulate the immune system to fight the disease more intensely, being more efficient;
  • Provide the proteins that make the immune system more effective for each type of disease.

As immunotherapy only stimulates the immune system, it is not able to quickly treat the symptoms of the disease and, therefore, the doctor may combine other medications, such as anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids or pain relievers, to reduce discomfort.

Main types of immunotherapy

Currently, four ways of applying immunotherapy are being studied:

1. Foster T cells

In this type of treatment, the doctor collects T cells that are attacking the tumor or inflammation of the body and then analyzes the sample in the laboratory to identify those that are contributing the most to the cure.

After analysis, the genes in these cells are modified to make T cells even stronger, returning them to the body to fight disease more easily.

2. Inhibitors of checkpoint

The body has a defense system that uses checkpoints to identify healthy cells and prevent the immune system from destroying them. However, cancer can also use this system to disguise cancer cells from healthy cells, preventing the immune system from being able to eliminate it.

In this type of immunotherapy, doctors use drugs at specific sites to inhibit this system in cancer cells, allowing the immune system to re-identify and eliminate them. This type of treatment has been done mainly on skin, lung, bladder, kidney and head cancer.

3. Monoclonal antibodies

These antibodies are created in the laboratory to be able to more easily recognize tumor cells and mark them, so that the immune system can eliminate them.

In addition, some of these antibodies can carry substances, such as chemotherapy or radioactive molecules, which prevent the growth of the tumor. See more about the use of monoclonal antibodies in the treatment of cancer .

4. Cancer vaccines

In the case of vaccines, the doctor collects some tumor cells and then changes them in the laboratory so that they are less aggressive. Finally, these cells are again injected into the patient’s body, in the form of a vaccine, to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer more effectively.

When immunotherapy is indicated

Immunotherapy is still a therapy under study and, therefore, it is a treatment that is indicated when: 

  • The disease causes severe symptoms that interfere with day-to-day activities; 
  • The disease puts the patient’s life at risk; 
  • The remaining treatments available are not effective against the disease.

In addition, immunotherapy is also indicated in cases where the available treatments cause very intense or severe side effects, which can be life-threatening.

Possible side effects

The side effects of immunotherapy can vary according to the type of therapy used, as well as the type of the disease and the stage of its development. However, the most common side effects include excessive tiredness, persistent fever, headache, nausea, dizziness and muscle pain.

Where immunotherapy treatment can be done

Immunotherapy is an option that can be suggested by the doctor who is guiding the treatment of each type of disease and, therefore, whenever necessary, it is done by a specialist doctor in the area.

Thus, in the case of cancer, for example, immunotherapy can be done in the oncology institutes, but in the case of skin diseases, it must already be done by a dermatologist and in the case of respiratory allergy the most suitable doctor is the allergist.

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