Immunotherapy and Children’s Cancer

Posted in: Blog | September 9, 2015

The biggest buzzword in cancer treatment over the last few years has been Immunotherapy. The latest revelations on the shrinking of melanoma tumours by drugs that stimulate the patient’s own immune system to attack the cancer, recently made media headlines around the world and demonstrated the huge potential of this therapeutic approach for the treatment of cancer in adults and children.

So what is immunotherapy and how can it be applied to the treatment cancer in children and young adults?

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that uses elements of the body’s natural defence system to attack and destroy cancer cells in a patient.  Most people are aware that a persons immune systems protects them from infectious disease by recognising and destroying invading bacterial cells and viruses. But how does the immune system distinguish between invading cells and the normal cells that make up its own organs and tissues? The human immune system recognises its own cells from those of invading bacteria and viruses, by reading the pattern of biomolecules on their surface. This molecular fingerprint tells the immune system to attack, or ignore cells within the body. Sometimes things go wrong with the immune system and it can mistake normal cells for foreign invaders, resulting in their death and eradication from the body. This is known as an auto immune disease and is one of the principle causes of illnesses such as type 1 diabetes. In effect, the immune system is misreading the information on the surface of the patients normal cells and as a result, targets the cell for destruction. So why do abnormal tumour cells not get destroyed in patients with cancer? The answer must lie in the mechanism of  self-recognition that is displayed by a persons immune system.

Cancer cells have a similar molecular fingerprint as the normal cells of a patient and are therefore not normally attacked by the immune system. This blind spot is designed to avoid self attack that would lead to autoimmune disease. However, cancer cells do have specific markers on their cell surface that distinguish them from the normal tissue. Training the immune system to identify these markers and to seek out and eliminate cancer cells is the ultimate goal of cancer immunotherapy.

The potential for the use of immunotherapy in the treatment of children with cancer is truly vast, with some clinical trials involving adults being spectacular successes. Unfortunately, this is not the case for every patient in these trials, with treatment response rates sometimes being quite low. The response rate problem is linked to the fact that each person’s cancer is unique and has its own molecular fingerprint. This variation in immune system recognition causes the treatment failure seen in many patients. However, when it does work, the effects of immunotherapy can be particularly impressive.


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