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Immunotherapies: Strengthening Our Own Defenses to Fight Cancer
Ben Leach
Dmitry Gabrilovich, M.D., Ph.D.

Everyone is taught early on in their lives about how their immune system serves as the body’s internal mechanic, working tirelessly to keep our bodies running the way they should. The immune system keeps the body protected from disease, it heals us from our injuries, and if we do get infected, it helps rid the body of bacteria and viruses.

What are immunotherapies?

  • Immunotherapies are treatments that certain parts of your body use to fight diseases like cancer.
  • An immune therapy can strengthen the immune system by stimulating it to work harder to fight cancer cells or give your immune system man-made components to help fight disease.
  • One type of immunotherapy is called a monoclonal antibody. These man-made versions of immune system proteins are designed to attack very specific parts of the cancer cell. Several of these monoclonal antibodies have been approved to treat many different types of cancer.
  • Another type of immunotherapy is a cancer vaccine, which stimulates the body to help it fight certain diseases. While many people might think of vaccines as preventive, cancer vaccines can be given after a diagnosis to help fight the disease. Only one cancer vaccine – Provenge for prostate cancer – has been approved by the FDA. (Source for sidebar: American Cancer Society)

Yet there are many diseases – cancer chief among them – that your immune system alone is not able to beat. Finding out how diseases manipulate our body’s own defenses – and how we can strengthen our immune systems to ward off these diseases – forms the basis of the study of immunology, and it’s an important part of the research that’s being done at The Wistar Institute.

Dmitry Gabrilovich, M.D., Ph.D., the Christopher M. Davis Professor of Cancer Research and recently recognized by Thomson Reuters as one of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds, established his laboratory at The Wistar Institute in 2013. His work focuses on the different methods that tumors use to suppress the immune system as well as the development of new, more effective methods of immune therapy of cancer (see sidebar).

“Tumor cells are the cells of our body that are somehow changed through genetics or environmental factors which make them proliferate or expand uncontrollably,” Dr. Gabrilovich says.

Over the years, researchers have understood ways in which the immune system can be trained to better fight against cancer. Dr. Gabrilovich described it as a similar process to what is done in order to develop effective vaccines. However, when someone receives a vaccine to protect them from a virus, they develop antibodies, which aren’t that effective in cancer. Instead, immunotherapies are required to help the T-cells work harder at fighting the cancer.

In Dr. Gabrilovich’s lab and across Wistar, they are using a team approach to study the two ways in which immunotherapies can become more effective. One approach is to find ways of strengthening the immune system’s response. The other approach is to learn more about the ways in which cancer manipulates our immune system and hinders its response.

“It’s become very clear for people who work in this field that only if you combine these two strategies – stimulation of immune response on one hand, and elimination of negative factors on the other hand – that you can get success, and that’s our goal,” Dr. Gabrilovich says.

To learn more about Wistar’s role in immunotherapies, listen to this month’s episode of The Wistar Institute Podcast.