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Immmunotherapy – The Future of Cancer Treatment

Cancer, the big ‘C’ is a dreaded word for patients and medical professionals alike. In simple words, cancer refers to abnormal, uncontrolled growth of cells. Many cancers are not detected or do not cause symptoms until advanced stages, making it challenging to treat the condition. India is showing significant increase in incidence rates of oral, prostate and renal cancer among male population while the female population is showing increased rates of uterine, breast and thyroid cancers. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery comprise mainstream treatment modality for various cancers. However, despite advances in these therapies, cure from cancer remains an elusive goal.

Immune surveillance by multiple cell types is responsible for recognizing and eliminating damaged/abnormal cells from the body thereby protecting the host. Nonetheless, there are limits to which the body can respond to illnesses. Cancer is one such condition where the immune system is challenged to keep the uncontrolled proliferation of cells in check. As a result, otherwise healthy individuals are also known to develop cancer. Cancer cells are capable of ‘hiding’ from the immune system and evade being removed from the body. Recent advances in cancer therapy therefore aim to harness the power of immune cells and train them to specifically attack cancerous cells.

Dr. Pradeep Mahajan, Regenerative Medicine Researcher, StemRx Bioscience Solutions Pvt. Ltd. explains, “In cancer, tissues express several antigens, which can be targeted by immunotherapy. Dendritic cells, Natural Killer cells etc., which are cells of the innate immune system are capable of inducing, sustaining and regulating T cell responses which then target cancer cells. These cells can be given as vaccines after isolation from the patients’ body and loading them with antigens. These antigen loaded immune cells home to lymphoid organs where they activate T cells and result in antitumor immunity and clinical response”.

Dr. Mahajan recently launched the first CliniMACS Prodigy System in India at his center. He says, “For a long time, bone marrow transplant has remained mainstay for treatment of hematological malignancies. However, it was not possible to opt for a transplant unless a complete match between donor and recipient cells was achieved (haploidentical). The Prodigy system allows for unmatched transplant which eliminates long waiting periods and can save lives” This technology is a certified GMP-grade cell manufacturing system that involves reprogramming of immune system cells (T cells). These cells can then be introduced in the body which will target malignant cells.

Conventional cancer therapies drastically compromise the quality of life of the affected individual. “We have seen cancer patients complaining of hair loss, weight loss, general malaise etc. The reason behind this is that, treatments such as chemotherapy/radiotherapy not only target cancer cells but also affect normal cells. Suppression of normal healing mechanisms results in undesirable side effects”, explains Dr. Mahajan. Immunotherapy and other advances in cancer therapy aim to prolong survival of the patient while ensuring maintenance of quality of life. Specificity and generation of long term immune surveillance against cancer cells is the chief goal of immunotherapy.

Treatment using dendritic cell, natural killer cell vaccine is just one form of immunotherapy. Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR)-T cells, monoclonal antibodies, immune checkpoint inhibitors and other non-specific immunotherapies are also being researched for cases of malignancy. Despite ongoing research on cancer immunotherapy, we are just at the tip of the iceberg. The need of the hour is development of techniques that would exclusively target cancer cells and spare normal cells and tissues. This is imperative to minimize the side effects of current therapies and achieve tangible results from therapy.

“StemRx aims to explore recent advances in cancer therapy and is collaborating with national and international organizations to bring technologies into our country. Apart from launching the CliniMACS Prodigy system, StemRx has also collaborated with CBC, Japan to bring in the Cellex NK cell technology to India. With these advances, we will soon be able to conquer the deadly disease”, concludes Dr. Mahajan.

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