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What's new in cancer immunotherapy research?

Immunotherapy is a very active area of cancer research. Many scientists and doctors around the world are studying new ways to use immunotherapy to treat cancer. Some of these are discussed here.

Newer monoclonal antibodies

Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) have already become an important part of the treatment for many cancers. As researchers have learned more about what makes cancer cells different from normal cells, they have developed mAbs to exploit these differences. They have also developed newer forms of mAbs, attaching them to drugs or other substances to make them more powerful. Researchers are also studying other ways of making monoclonal antibodies safer and more effective. For example, because mAbs are proteins, they can actually make the body's immune system react against them. This can lead to side effects, as well as destroying the mAbs. Newer forms of mAbs are less likely to cause immune reactions. Researchers are also looking to see if using only parts of antibodies can make these drugs work better. Another new approach is to combine parts of two antibodies together (known as a bispecific antibody). One part attaches to a cancer cell, while the other attaches to an immune cell, bringing the two together and leading to an immune response. New types of mAbs are now being studied for use against many types of cancer. For information on newer treatments for a particular type of cancer, please see our information on that type of cancer.

Treatments that target immune system checkpoints

As mentioned in Immune checkpoint inhibitors to treat cancer, the immune system has checkpoint proteins (such as PD-1 and CTLA-4) that help keep it from attacking other normal cells in the body. Cancer cells sometimes take advantage of these checkpoints to avoid being attacked by the immune system.

Targeting these checkpoints is quickly becoming an important part of the treatment for some cancers, including melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer. Researchers have also found promising early results against a number of other cancer types. Unlike most other cancer drugs, these checkpoint inhibitors seem to be helpful against many different types of cancer. Only a handful of these treatments have been approved for use so far, but many others are now being studied in clinical trials.

A newer approach being studied is to combine treatments that have different targets (such as nivolumab, which targets PD-1, and ipilimumab, which targets CTLA-4) to see if this might work better. In melanoma, this combined approach has been shown to work better than using either treatment alone, but the combination also comes with an increased risk of serious side effects. Other studies are looking at combining checkpoint inhibitors with other types of drugs used to treat cancer.

Newer cancer vaccines

Vaccines are not yet a major type of treatment for cancer. Researchers have been trying to develop vaccines to fight cancer for decades, but this has proven to be harder than was first thought. As researchers have learned over the years, the immune system is very complex. It has also become clear that cancer cells have different ways of eluding the immune system, which makes creating effective vaccines difficult.

Researchers are using the knowledge gained in recent years to improve how they develop cancer vaccines. For example, vaccines are now often given along with other substances (called adjuvants) that help boost the body's immune response, which might help the vaccines work better. Researchers are also studying the best way to give vaccines, looking to see if they work better when used alone or with other types of cancer treatments.