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What is Radioimmunotherapy?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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Radioimmunotherapy is a cancer treatment technique that involves subjecting malignant tumors to high doses of radiation while sparing nearby healthy body tissue. It is a relatively new form of treatment that is not widely used as a first or second defense against cancer. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has been very responsive to radioimmunotherapy in clinical trials and actual medical practice, and most oncologists believe that the treatment has a great deal of promise in combating many other types of tumors as well.

The science of radioimmunotherapy combines elements of traditional radiation treatment with new breakthroughs in immunology. Synthetic antibodies are produced in labs that are designed to act much like biological antibodies made by the immune system. When biological antibodies confront pathogens, they bind to proteins and block their activity. Instead of targeting bacteria and viruses, synthetic monoclonal antibodies bind to specific proteins on malignant tumor cells.

Each synthetic antibody contains a precise amount of ionized radiation that can be emitted once they attach themselves to tumor cells. Doctors administer relatively low-level radioactive antibodies at first to make sure that they target the right cells and leave healthy tissue alone. Once imaging and lab tests confirm that the antibodies are working properly, a full course of radioimmunotherapy can begin. The number of treatments a patient needs depends on several factors, including his or her age, weight, overall health, and specific type of cancer.

There are many potential benefits of using radioimmunotherapy over other treatment options. Traditional chemotherapy and radiation are often effective at killing cancerous cells, but healthy blood and tissue can also be affected. Radioimmunotherapy eliminates most of the risks associated with chemotherapy, including the impact on white blood cell counts and immune system functioning. Radiation treatments expose malignant cells to radioactive materials, while exposure is limited to healthy tissue with new techniques.

Radioimmunotherapy is not a perfect remedy, however, and there are certainly risks involved that doctors must carefully consider. Treatments can raise a person's risk of internal hemorrhaging. If a cancer somehow builds a resistance to radiation after many doses, there may be no way to stop tumors from growing and spreading. Many doctors and biochemists hope to continue to improve upon current techniques and make radioimmunotherapy a mainstay of initial cancer treatment. Ongoing research suggests that new innovations may be able to help eradicate brain tumors, leukemia, melanoma, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer in addition to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

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