If stimulated the right way, our immune system can prevent some diseases and even cure them: this is immunotherapy, a treatment method based on the use of substances that activate and strengthen the immune system, making it attack diseased cells from the inside. In the last four years oncology achieved good results in the treatment of lung cancer, kidney cancer and some intestinal cancers. Interesting prospects opened up for brain, bladder and liver tumours too.

We are far from creating a single vaccine for cancer, but researchers agree on one thing: there will be no future fight against tumours without immunotherapy. Professor Alberto Mantovani, Scientific Director of Humanitas, spoke about this at “L’ora della salute ” on La7.


How was immunotherapy discovered?

“First of all, we understood better what happens to the immune system of the patients that get to the hospital. In a patient with a tumour two things have happened: a part of the immune system went over to the enemy, being naturally immune cells that act like actual corrupt cops and help every aspect of the cancer. Another part of the immunities is asleep, and the corrupt cops administer sleep aids to the good cells that could help against cancer. This revolution in the way we now look at cancer laid the foundations for the development of therapeutic strategies. Nowadays we use antibodies to treat patients with blood, breast and intestine tumoral diseases. We then identified the stops that affect the immune system and we had a great success against some tumors by removing those stops”, Prof. Mantovani explained.


How does immunotherapy work?

“Traditional approaches aim to kill the tumoral cell, while immune system-based approaches aim to reawaken the immunities that have the brakes on. These approaches are making a real difference, for example in the treatment of melanoma, even though much remains to be done.

Immunotherapy will not replace other approaches, but it will support them. We will have to learn how to rationally combine chemotherapy, targeted therapeutics and immunotherapy”.


Vaccines against cancer

“Basically we have two vaccines against cancer. One is the one against the human papilloma virus, that prevents cervix cancer in women and head, neck and anus cancer in males. The second vaccine is the one against hepatitis B virus, responsible for some liver cancers. We also hope for new precautionary vaccines. The scientific challenge, however, is using vaccines against cancer in a therapeutic context”, Prof. Mantovani points out.


Immunotherapy in rheumatology

Immunotherapy also plays an important role in the treatment of rheumatic diseases. Professor Carlo Selmi, Rheumatology Supervisor at Humanitas, explains: “We call ‘immunotherapy’ every therapeutic approach that modulates the way the immune system reacts. On one hand we can try to increase the response of the system, on the other hand (as in rheumatology) we can try to reduce it, acting on specific mechanisms of the chronic inflammatory response.

If compared to the traditional chemical synthesis therapies, immunotherapy is a radical change because it affects the mechanisms (not the outcomes) of the inflammation. This is a huge leap forward.