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Immunotherapy 101? Ask a Scientist

June 29, 2016

As part of Cancer Immunotherapy Month in 2016, Jeffrey Weber, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of NYU Langone Medical Center’s Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center, answers pressing questions from patients about cancer immunotherapy. Each week a new video was released answering a common question from patients. This video series is made possible with generous support from Regeneron. 

Immunotherapy 101 Video playlist

How can the immune system fight cancer? 

The immune system is an ecosystem within our bodies that evolved over millenia to eliminate threats to life and limb: infection, trauma, and cancer. The innate immune system contains many different players with different roles to act on threats. The adaptive immune system is the reserve players who have memory and can discern threats.

Which cancers can be treated with immunotherapy? 

There is no reason why you can't treat any cancer with immunotherapy. All cancers have mutations. If the mutation can be seen, an immune response can activate. In the early days, melanoma showed the most potential as an immunogenic tumor, but today, we have evidence that a whole variety of cancers can be treated with immunotherapy. Now immunotherapy is in the mainstream of cancer treatment; it will only get better as time goes on and more patients will benefit.

Can I get cancer immunotherapy if I have an autoimmune disease? 

Yes, someone with a mild autoimmune disease should be able to receive most immunotherapies. Oncologists can work with a patient's rheumatologist to customize a treatment plan for maximum benefit with limited adverse effects.

Is cancer immunotherapy given in combination with other treatments? 

Yes, cancer immunotherapies may be given in combination with other immunotherapies or conventional treatments, such as targeted therapy, chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

What is PD-1? 

PD-1 stands for Programmed Cell Death Protein 1, which is a bit of a misnomer. It is a molecule that exists predominately on the surface of T cells and acts as a brake. Tumor cells are good at evading the immune system and increase expression of PD-L1 on their cell surface, which binds to the PD-1 on the T cell, suppressing attack. PD-1/PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitors block that interaction and allow the immune system to attack in the way it should.

Our first Ask a Scientist video series with David Reardon, M.D., discussed immunotherapy and brain tumors.

The Ask a Scientist video series are part of CRI's Answer to Cancer patient education program. If you're interested in more Ask a Scientist video series, please contact us.

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*Immunotherapy results may vary from patient to patient.

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