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Immunotherapy and cancer: how does it work?

Written by: Dr Mark Tuthill
Edited by: Laura Burgess

The body’s immune system is often able to detect cancer cells and destroy them, however, in certain circumstances, these cells can go undetected. This enables them to continually grow into a tumour. We’ve asked consultant medical oncologist Dr Mark Tuthill to explain how medical therapies known as immunotherapy work in treating certain forms of cancer.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy treatments for cancer are medical therapies that help a person's own immune system attack or fight cancer that they have unfortunately got. All of us have a variety of immune cells in our body, which can detect problems like infections but they can also pick up significant problems like cancer.

The problem in the past has always been that although the immune system has been able to detect cancer, it's always had difficulty destroying established tumours and these are the tumours that your doctor would have picked up.

Immunotherapy treatments stimulate your own immune system to get past these initial blocks and attack the cancer cells. This can lead to the eradication of advanced tumours and also prevents tumours from coming back.

How do immunotherapy medications work?

Immunotherapy therapy medications work in two distinct ways. The first is: they can stimulate your immune system to attack cancer that it's not seen before. So, an example of that would be a vaccine.

Other immunotherapy treatments work by essentially removing the sort of ‘molecular camouflage’ that the tumours use to hide from the immune system. An example of that would be an immune checkpoint inhibitor.

Immune checkpoints are like 'brakes' that stop the immune cells from attacking cancer cells and when we take the brakes off using medicine such as an antibody, it can stimulate the immune system to attack the cancer cells.

Once that process has been started, the immune system works a little bit like a cascade and more and more immune cells get recruited and essentially the fight is on between the tumour and the immune system.

Actually, as a result of these, the effect of ‘stimulating’ the immune system, means that the tumours can be controlled and even cured in some groups of patients.

Read more on immunotherapy in breast cancer care

By Dr Mark Tuthill
Medical oncology

Dr Mark Tuthill is an experienced consultant medical oncologist and an expert in the use of immunotherapy in cancer treatment. Practicing at the Manor Hospital and GenesisCare in Oxford, Dr Tuthill specialises in the treatment of early and recurrent cancer including breast cancer, prostate cancer,kidney cancer, bladder cancer and testicular cancer. Treatment is personalised to each patient's needs and preferences and can include the use of chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, or cancer growth inhibitors.

Dr Tuthill originally qualified from University College London, and trained in Medical Oncology in London at the Royal Marsden, Hammersmith, Charing Cross, and the Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals. In 2015 he was appointed Consultant Medical Oncologist at Churchill Hospital, Oxford, where he acts as principal investigator on a number of clinical trials.

Dr Tuthill’s research interests include tumour immunology, cancer-growth inhibitors, and novel therapeutic drug combinations for the treatment of cancer. He is a principal investigator or sub-investigator for early and late phase clinical trials in tumour types including breast cancer, urological cancers and other tumour types. Dr Tuthill holds a PhD in Tumour Immunology from Imperial College London and regularly presents his research at national and international conferences. He is a clinical ambassador for UCARE (Urology Cancer Research and Education), an independent charity raising funds for research into prostate and bladder cancer, and is a member of The Association of Cancer Physicians.

Dr Tuthill has a medico-legal practice supported by a dedicated a highly professional medico-legal administrative team and medico-legal analysts. He writes clear concise reports to time and client satisfaction.

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