Understanding Immune Checkpoints and Their Role in Cancer
Many people liken the body to a computer that functions well courtesy of high-tech programming that keeps interdependent systems operating smoothly. One such system is the immune system. Sort of like a computer’s antivirus software, the immune system constantly scans for foreign invaders. When invaders, such as viruses, are detected, the immune system goes into overdrive attempting to seek them out and destroy them. Often highly efficient and effective, the immune system has the keen ability to prevent damage to normal, healthy cells while destroying those that pose a risk to the body itself.
This, however, is not the case when cancer cells present. Much like a well-orchestrated computer hack that escapes detection, cancer cells often fly under the immune system’s radar. They do this by first starting out as normal cells and then morphing into the deadly ones. The immune system, however, fails to recognize the once-normal cells as anything but.
Essentially the process by which cancer cells fake out the immune system involves the body’s “immune checkpoints. Immune checkpoints are the molecules the body uses to identify abnormal proteins. These checkpoints activate the body’s immune response when they detect invaders. The proteins from normal cells, however, deactivate the immune response. By going through a backdoor so to say, cancer cells fail to trigger the appropriate response.
When immunotherapy is used in the treatment of cancer, the intent is to get these immune checkpoints to recognize the danger that is present. The hope is to manipulate the immune system into identifying and destroying cancer cells on its own. The intent is to let the body effectively attack the cancer cells itself without damaging those cells that are normal and healthy. Since the body’s own immune system is a finely tuned machined designed to spare healthy cells, many researchers believe immunotherapy may one day provide the key to stopping cancer in its tracks.