Immunotherapy to Beat Cancer

    By knowing how the body's defenses interact with tumors, immunotherapy is one of the most innovative therapeutic treatments against cancer

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    In Costa Rica, in 2020, there were 13,139 new cases of cancer and 6,028 people died from this disease, according to data from the Global Cancer Observatory. Immunotherapy represents one of the most promising areas for research in oncology and the treatment of diseases, mainly those with a higher mutational burden. The principle of immunotherapy is to take advantage of the immune system’s own ability to fight cancer.

    The role of the immune system is to detect and destroy anything foreign in the body. This includes viruses, bacteria, but also cancer cells. When these cells are not destroyed they become tumors. So what immunotherapy does is take the T cells, which are the destructive part of the immune system and makes sure that they target the malignant cells of the tumor to destroy them.

    To achieve this, the so-called “cancer immunity cycle” is broken. That is, the T cells are generated, get where they need to go, infiltrate the tumor and destroy it. By killing cancer cells, antigens are released, causing further generation of T cells, thereby ending the cycle.

    Previously, cancerous tumors had the ability to go undetected by the immune system causing the disease to progress rapidly. But now, immunotherapy makes the tumor visible and the body’s own defenses can attack it. The combination of immunotherapy with chemotherapy, targeted therapies, and other treatments has favored patients with greater drug tolerance, longer survival, and improved quality of life, among other long-term benefits.

    Multipronged approach

    “We currently know 250 types of cancer, 350 genes that contribute to the development of cancer and, for example, for certain types of lung cancer, around 100,000 different mutations have been identified. All of this creates a unique cancer profile, a single patient, which is why cancer treatment requires a personalized and often multi-pronged approach”, explains the Medical Director of Roche Central America and the Caribbean, Dr. María Clara Horsburgh.
    “From our growing understanding of tumor biology, along with learnings from the cancer immunity cycle, we know that there is more than one way to harness the power of the immune system. By identifying where the immune system fails in each patient’s tumor, we have the knowledge to determine the right combination partners that will be key to delivering long-term results for patients,” says Horsburgh.

    Increased capacity

    Based on the knowledge of how the immune system works and interacts with tumors, it is envisioned in the near future, to expand the capacity to understand the different ways in which cancer evades the body’s defense system, to generate a differentiated line of “smart” drugs to attack cancer cells more effectively, control their side effects and achieve greater survival, with the ultimate goal being to cure cancer of all its types.

    One year after the health crisis generated by COVID-19, cancer patients continue to be one of the groups most vulnerable to the virus due to the weakening of their immune systems. According to data from the Global Cancer Observatory, in 2020 more than 19 million new cases were diagnosed and about 10 million people died from cancer.

    In the case of Costa Rica, the previous year 13,139 people were confirmed and 6,028 died, figures that are added to the 85,568 new cases and 47,743 deaths, in Central America and in the Dominican Republic.

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