Breast cancer treatment has come a long way over the past few decades, but no cure has been found to date. Immunotherapy could potentially change that. Recent breakthroughs targeting tumor-specific proteins have made immunotherapy more effective, and we could be closer than ever to a cure.
Immunotherapy has shown promise in treating numerous forms of cancer, but breast cancer has been more difficult to approach, until recently. So what is immunotherapy, how does it work, and what's happening with this breakthrough in breast cancer research?
Invasive breast cancer will strike an estimated 268,600 women in 2019 alone, and approximately 41,760 women will die from it. In her lifetime, the average woman has a one-in-eight chance of developing some form of the disease. Women are over 110 times more likely to develop breast cancer than men.
Better screening practices and advances in treatment options have improved the survival rate, which hasn’t stopped increasing since 1989. But even so, breast cancer remains the second most deadly cancer for women, surpassed only by lung cancer.
What Is Immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy, the practice of harnessing the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells, is nothing new, but researchers still have a lot to learn about using it effectively. There are four main types of immunotherapy:
- Monoclonal antibodies are lab-made immune cells that can be designed to attack specific parts of cancer cells. They have been found to be useful in treating cancer.
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors counteract the immune-suppressing effects of some cancers, making them easier to detect and attack.
- Cancer vaccines trigger an immune response against certain cancers. These vaccines can either prevent or treat cancer.
- Other immunotherapies can help boost the immune system and make it more effective at attacking cancer cells.
Researchers have seen promising results using immunotherapy against numerous types of cancer, but some forms of the disease have proven harder to tackle than others. Breast cancer has been particularly difficult due to its ability to suppress the immune system and resist cancer-fighting immune cells.
Overcoming Pitfalls in Breast Cancer Treatment
Researchers may have found a few of the missing puzzle pieces. In a recent study, immune cells were programmed to attack four specific proteins found in HR-positive metastatic breast cancer: SLC3A2, KIAA0368, CADPS2 and CTSB. All of the test patient’s tumors shrank away, putting her into long-standing remission.
Another study showed a medication that targets CXCR4/CXCL12 reverses immunosuppression and makes tumors easier to infiltrate. Treatments to increase tumor blood supplies may make immunotherapies more effective and easier on the body. Researchers are even finding some viruses may be useful tools in improving immunotherapy approaches in some of the most stubborn forms of breast cancer.
So we've definitely made progress and found some new hopeful ideas that may become breakthrough treatments. We still have a long way to go before we’ll have it all figured out, but every step in the right direction is an important one. Immunotherapy is a promising treatment, and despite the pitfalls, it could be the leap forward we’ve been waiting and hoping for.
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