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David Plaut: Off the Cuff

Cancer and the Immune System

Published May 28, 2014 3:46 PM by David Plaut

Immunotherapy for cancer has undergone a renaissance in recent years, based both on technological developments such as the ease in introducing genes into T cells and on an improved understanding of the obstacles to eradicating cancer through immune mechanisms. Much remains to be discovered, however, there is considerable optimism that this approach can have a significant impact for patients, both alone and as an adjunct to hematopoietic stem cell transplant. For a long time doctors suspected that the immune system could affect certain cancers. Even before the immune system was well understood, William Coley, a surgeon, first noted that getting an infection after surgery seemed to help some cancer patients. In the late 1800s, he began treating cancer patients by infecting them with certain kinds of bacteria, which came to be known as Coley toxins. Although he had some success, his technique was overshadowed when other forms of cancer treatment.

Since then, doctors have learned a good deal about the immune system, deal with genetic therapy and they might be used to treat cancer. In the last few decades immunotherapy has become an important part of treating some cancers. Immunotherapy includes treatments that work in different ways. Some boost the body’s immune system in a very general way. Others help train the immune system to attack cancer cells specifically. Immunotherapy works better for some types of cancer than for others. It’s used by itself for some of these cancers, but for others it seems to work better when used with other types of treatment.

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The Best American Science Writing 2012.

posted by David Plaut


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