Autoimmune reactions of cancer immunotherapy

Harnessing the potency and specificity of the immune system in fighting cancer, cancer immunotherapy drugs have been shown, in many clinical trials, to significantly reduce the size of both liquid (i.e., blood) and solid tumours. However, relatively little is reported on the potential side effects of the treatment where antibodies release the brakes on the immune system previously tricked by nefarious signals from cancer cells to regard them as the body’s healthy cells.


The key issue with cancer immunotherapy treatments lies in the release of the immune brakes. While releasing the brakes helps the immune system recognize cancer cells and proceed to launch an attack, the immune system could also be inadvertently over-reactive in attacking the body’s own healthy cells, in what is known as an autoimmune attack.


In a recent report in the New York Times, (Link), several cases where cancer immunotherapy led to cancer remission, but subsequently, flared up into a systemic whole body attack on healthy organs, should raise concerns on the severity and acute nature of side effects arising from cancer immunotherapy that could come about without warning several months after immunotherapy treatment success.


Autoimmune attacks after cancer immunotherapy treatment typically manifest as a fever with no aetiology, onset of multiple dysfunctions in several organs, as well as a patient’s overall condition spiraling downwards within a few hours, doctors inexperienced with treating the side effects of patients who had undergone cancer immunotherapy may not be able to take the appropriate response to dampen an over-reactive immune system.


Hence, while cancer immunotherapy has shown its worth in fighting previously recalcitrant cancers and given hope to patients who have ran out of treatment options, possible autoimmune reactions that manifest, unexpectedly, months after a successful treatment, that could culminate in multiple organ failure and death highlights the nascent nature of this treatment where many drugs are still in clinical trials, and which is typically offered as a last line treatment to patients. Further research may look into the possibility of calibrating the immune response unleashed by the cancer immunotherapy drugs where the goal of killing cancer cells and preventing a relapse is achieved while preventing or reducing chances of an autoimmune reaction on the body.


Category: cancer,

Tags: cancer immunotherapy, side effects, checkpoint inhibitors, organ failure, immune system, fever,


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