Thursday, March 5, 2015

Immunotherapy Basics

I've linked a few times to a site called Yale Cancer Center Answers, and I'm going to give you another one.

"Answers" is a local radio show, sponsored and produced by the Smilow Cancer Center at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The show is hosted by oncologists, and every week, they have a different cancer-related topic, and interview an expert in that area who is affiliated with Yale. Shows range from specific types top cancer to information for caregivers to nutrition and exercise advice.

A recent show was titled "Using Immunotherapy to Fight Cancer," and that title certainly caught my eye. If you have kept up with cancer news in the last couple of years, you know how important immunotherapy is for our future. As researchers have learned more about cancer, they have come to understand how it resists attempts by the immune system to control it. In other words, cancer doesn't belong in the body, and the immune system is supposed to take care of stuff that doesn't belong. Immunotherapy involves the many ways that researchers are trying to fix that situation, training the body to recognize and eliminate cancer cells. Think PD-1, which has been in the news. PD-1 stands for "Programmed Death"; it appears on the surface of cells and prevents T-cells from killing the cancer cells. One class of cancer treatments making lots of news is PD-1 Inhibitors, which shut down PD-1 and let T-cells do their job and wipe out the cancer cells. Immunotherapy -- allowing the body's natural immune system to take care of the cancer.

The Yale show features an interview with Dr. Tarek Fahmy, who teaches Biomedical Engineering and Immunology at Yale. In the interview, he describes Immunotherapy in general, using vaccines as an example. A vaccine for something like measles works because it trains the immune system to recognize measles and attack it. Immunotherapy engineers try to build the pieces that go into that reaction and get the various parts to talk to each other.

It works the same way with cancer cells, as Dr Fahmy discusses, though it's a little tougher because cancer cells are so tricky.

Overall, it's an interesting interview. Yale always does a nice job on this show of explaining difficult ideas in easy-to-understand ways. In this interview, you'll find comparisons to brewing beer, Pac Man, and hair follicles, among other things.

You can find a recording of the show here and clicking in the January 25 link, and a written transcript of it here.


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