Immune Responses Against Cancer

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Karposi’s Sarcoma Lesions (credit: National Cancer Institute)

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

It is clear that with some cancers, for example Kaposi’s sarcoma, a healthy immune system does a good job at controlling them. This disease, which is caused by the human herpesvirus, is almost never observed in individuals with strong immune systems, such as the young and immunocompetent. Other examples of cancers caused by viruses include liver cancer caused by the hepatitis B virus and cervical cancer caused by the human papilloma virus. As these last two viruses have vaccines available for them, getting vaccinated can help prevent these two types of cancer by stimulating the immune response.

On the other hand, as cancer cells are often able to divide and mutate rapidly, they may escape the immune response, just as certain pathogens such as HIV do. There are three stages in the immune response to many cancers: elimination, equilibrium, and escape. Elimination occurs when the immune response first develops toward tumor-specific antigens specific to the cancer and actively kills most cancer cells, followed by a period of controlled equilibrium during which the remaining cancer cells are held in check. Unfortunately, many cancers mutate, so they no longer express any specific antigens for the immune system to respond to, and a subpopulation of cancer cells escapes the immune response, continuing the disease process.

This fact has led to extensive research in trying to develop ways to enhance the early immune response to completely eliminate the early cancer and thus prevent a later escape. One method that has shown some success is the use of cancer vaccines, which differ from viral and bacterial vaccines in that they are directed against the cells of one’s own body. Treated cancer cells are injected into cancer patients to enhance their anti-cancer immune response and thereby prolong survival. The immune system has the capability to detect these cancer cells and proliferate faster than the cancer cells do, overwhelming the cancer in a similar way as they do for viruses. Cancer vaccines have been developed for malignant melanoma, a highly fatal skin cancer, and renal (kidney) cell carcinoma. These vaccines are still in the development stages, but some positive and encouraging results have been obtained clinically.

It is tempting to focus on the complexity of the immune system and the problems it causes as a negative. The upside to immunity, however, is so much greater: The benefit of staying alive far outweighs the negatives caused when the system does sometimes go awry. Working on “autopilot,” the immune system helps to maintain your health and kill pathogens. The only time you really miss the immune response is when it is not being effective and illness results, or, as in the extreme case of HIV disease, the immune system is gone completely.

Source:

Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology

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