What is Immuno-Oncology: The Next 3 Big Advancements in Cancer Treatment

Blog Health What is Immuno-Oncology: The Next 3 Big Advancements in Cancer Treatment

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5.17.2024 0 comments

What if we told you that your body has the power to fight cancer? That within your cells is all the genetic material needed to cancel out carcinogens, eradicate tumor cells, and stop the spread and growth of cancers?

In this post, we’ll learn about a new scientific field of study called “immuno-oncology,” or using your body’s natural immunity to conquer cancer. We’ll also look at some of the next big advancements in cancer treatment based on immuno-oncology that you need to know about.

By the end, you’ll have a whole new outlook on what the future of cancer-fighting medicine and science may soon have to offer.

Immuno-Oncology 101

Immuno-oncology, also known as “cancer immunotherapy”, is an approach to treating cancer “that uses the power of the body’s own immune system to prevent, control, and eliminate cancer.” [1]

The human immune system is incredibly powerful, and has the ability to neutralize and eradicate a wide range of pathogens and harmful chemicals. In recent years, scientists have begun unlocking ways that it can be put to more effective use combatting cancer in a number of methods, using:

  • Targeted antibodies

  • Tumor-infecting viruses

  • Adoptive cell transfer

  • Cancer vaccines

  • Adjuvants

  • Checkpoint inhibitors

  • Cytokines

Immuno-oncology essentially uses your own biology to fight off disease, specifically the disease that we call cancer. Gene therapies enhance the effectiveness of our cells’ natural cancer-fighting abilities. Used in combination with chemotherapies, radiation treatments, and surgeries, it has the potential to be a highly effective and targeted method of eradicating cancer.

At its core, however, it’s a fairly simple solution: it strengthens your immune system and “teaches” your immune cells how to recognize and kill off cancer cells [2]. Essentially, it gives your body the power to defeat cancer on its own.

Granted, the science is still very much in its early stages. While some strides of progress have been made (as you’ll see below), there’s a great deal that has yet to be understood about how to improve the body’s ability to recognize and eradicate cancer cells.

However, the continued research into these treatments—which have been called “passive” treatments, but which are now becoming recognized as a more holistic approach—it has become understood that they are as crucial for managing and eliminating cancer as “active” treatments (including surgery and chemotherapy).

Even if the active treatments remove most or all of the existing cancer cells, the body’s immune system is still needed to recognize, suppress, and eradicate cancer cells that may develop in the future. Or, in individuals at high risk, immuno-oncology can help to mitigate risk.

With that in mind, researchers are continuing to dive into more immunotherapies aimed at treating cancer. As one study summed up [3], “in the future, well-designed immunotherapies, administered at the right stage of tumour progression, have the potential to significantly change the ongoing immune response in the tumour microenvironment from tumour-promoting to tumour-rejecting.”

Three New Advancements in Immuno-Oncology

Here are some of the latest strides of progress medical research has made into cancer immunotherapy:

1. Antibody-Drug Conjugates

Antibody-drug conjugates are substances “made up of a monoclonal antibody chemically linked to a drug.” [4]

The monoclonal antibodies are created to bind with specific receptors or proteins in the cancer cells, while the drug serves as the “delivery mechanism” that ensures they can enter the cancer cells and kill them off without causing damage to healthy cells around them.

One study called these antibody-drug conjugates a “biological missile” [5], providing evidence that these antibody-drug conjugates are “leading a new era of targeted cancer therapy” and stating that they are “expected to be a substitute for conventional chemotherapies in the future.”

2. Personalized Immune Stimulation

While a great deal of cancer treatments (like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery) address the issue a bit like a sledgehammer, “targeted immune response” solutions use a more tailored, precise approach.

In 2011, drugs called “checkpoint inhibitors” were released. These drugs effectively block the proteins (produced in high levels by cancer cells) that prevent your immune system from attacking cancer cells [6]. As such, they allow your body free rein to specifically target those cancer cells for eradication.

Building on the back of the effectiveness of these checkpoint inhibitors, a team of researchers from Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute [7] created a solution that would essentially mutate the cancer cells and cause them to produce altered proteins. These proteins cause the body to produce a tumor neoantigen that enables the immune system’s killer T cells to recognize the cancer as a foreign invader and thus attack and eradicate it.

Four years after the initial research was published, a follow-up study [8] found that these personalized immune stimulation solutions were effective in keeping the cancer cells under control. By modulating the cancer cells themselves—altering the protein that was produced—they enabled the body to more efficiently combat growth and prevent their spread.

This science is still very new, with a great deal left to understand and unlock about how to target a wider range of cancers and give the body more power to eradicate the cancerous cells.

But even in its earliest stages, the results are impressive—so much so that the researcher leading the investigation into this immunotherapy is being awarded the Sjöberg Prize in recognition of her “decisive contributions” to this field of cancer research.

3. Bispecific T-Cell Engagers

Our bodies’ T cells function as aggressive defenders, recognizing invading threats and eliminating them before they can cause harm to the body.

As mentioned above, cancer cells produce high levels of protein that “switch off” the T cells and prevent them from attacking. Bispecific T-cell engagers, however, recruit the killer T cells to the task of hunting down and eradicating the tumor cells, redirecting T cells to the specific antigens in tumors and activating them even despite the presence of the proteins that might otherwise switch them off.

Essentially, this neutralizes the effect cancer cells have on the T cells, or can activate “exhausted” T cells [9] to give the immune system a boost.

There are some limitations to this particular immunotherapy treatment. Bispecific T-cell engagers have a very short lifespan, so in order to work, they have to be continuously infused. This makes it more difficult to be useful in real-life conditions where patients lead busy lives and can’t remain permanently hooked up to IVs.

But the discovery of these T-cell engagers is a step in the right direction, nonetheless. It’s further proof the body can defend itself; we just need to continue discovering how to give it the tools to do so.

In Conclusion

Your body is a powerhouse, multi-functional and highly effective at carrying out a wide range of tasks. Most importantly, it’s built with its own inner self-defence mechanisms that make it capable of repairing and restoring itself.

The more science understands how to boost the immune system’s functionality, when our own immunity fails us, the more effectively it will be able to fight off threats like cancer and disease.

Though immuno-oncology is still a young field of science, the amazing breakthroughs that have already been made point in the right direction. The more we come to understand it, the more we will be able to arm ourselves with the targeted treatments to make our immune systems capable of destroying cancer cells—perhaps one day without the need for surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy!


[1] www.cancerresearch.org/what-is-immunotherapy

[2] www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4085883/

[3] www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4085883/

[4] www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/antibody-drug-conjugate

[5] www.nature.com/articles/s41392-022-00947-7

[6] www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/treatment/immunotherapy/types/checkpoint-inhibitors

[7] www.nature.com/articles/nature22991

[8] www.dana-farber.org/newsroom/news-releases/2021/personalized-vaccine-produces-long-lasting-anti-tumor-response-in-patients-with-melanoma-study-shows

[9] jhoonline.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13045-021-01084-4


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