The emergence of immunotherapy as an effective cancer treatment is linked to researchers and doctors better understanding how cancer cells work – how they grow rapidly, resist regular cell death, and evade the immune system.
So, why exactly does the immune system need this assistance? What is it about cancer cells that make the immune system T cells and natural killer (NK) cells less effective? Answering these questions helps to explain why many scientists believe in using cell and gene therapies – and other types of immunotherapy – to assist the immune system.
In this blog, Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy explains why the immune system needs immune checkpoint inhibitors, cell and gene therapies, and other therapeutic allies.
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Immune cells versus cancer cells
T cells, a type of white blood cell, are the primary guardians of our bodies’ health. The issue is T cells often don’t recognize cancer cells as problematic. The same is true for natural killer cells and other immune system cells.
Why does this happen?
The answer is cancer cells form from our natural, healthy tissue. They aren’t outside intruders like bacteria or a virus.
Cancer cells can appear to T cells like normal tissue – just growing and dividing at a much faster rate than normal. Cancer cells also have protein receptors that serve as masks hiding their identity.
When these receptors interact with specific T-cell receptors, the cancer cell tricks the T cell into moving along to investigate other cells.
How cell and gene therapy helps the immune system
Cell and gene therapy retrains the immune system to look for and find cancer cells. By identifying cancer cells, the immune system can fight the disease.
Cell and gene therapy uses genetic modification – either adding, editing or removing genes – to change how immune cells work. Changing the genetics of immune cells leads to a new protein receptor or another modification that directs the T cells and NK cells toward the tumors.
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