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What Is Specific Immunotherapy?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 17, 2024
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Specific immunotherapy employs the human body’s immune system to fight disease. These treatments can enhance or suppress the immune system’s normal response to disease, infection, and invading foreign substances. Also called biological therapy, specific immunotherapy is studied as a treatment for allergies and cancer. Researchers hope to develop a vaccine to prevent cells from growing into tumors as an advanced form of specific immunotherapy.

The immune system contains a complex system of cells, organs, and chemicals that protect against disease. Immune system cells throughout the body search for and attack substances that might lead to illness by sparking an immune response against antigens. The immune system might not recognize cancer as a threat because normal cells and cancer cells are so similar.

Specific immunotherapy used in cancer treatment might use monoclonal antibodies, a form of white blood cells, created in a laboratory. Monoclonal cells are injected with drugs or radioactivity to create a hybrid cell the body identifies as foreign. This triggers the body’s immune system to create antibodies to fight the invading substance.

Two other forms of specific immunotherapy use natural substances found in the immune system. Interferon protein fights foreign substances in the body, especially viruses. It can be made synthetically or derived naturally. Injections of interferon might stimulate a patient’s immune system to attack the growth of tumors. Interleukin-2 represents a natural chemical found in the immune system that might spur a specific cell in the immune system to attack cancer.

Allergen-specific immunotherapy helps some patients build a tolerance to certain allergens in the environment that spark allergies and asthma. These treatments involve injections, tablets, drops, or sprays of certain substances that cause allergic reactions. Allergen-specific immunotherapy works because the patient’s immune system develops a tolerance to the allergen.

Patients treated with these therapies show reduced need for inhalers and drugs to control symptoms. In the past, people who suffered allergies were advised to avoid substances that caused discomfort, but hundreds of common substances, such as dust and pollen, cause allergic reactions. These modern therapies might redirect the immune system’s response to certain allergens.

An early form of specific immunotherapy was used by Native Americans. They sometimes chewed small pieces of leaves from poison ivy each day until they developed immunities to the plant. Researchers hope to create cancer vaccines that cause the human immune system to fight abnormal cells likely to become tumors.

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