Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation Blog

Immunotherapy offers hope in the fight against childhood cancer. Read more about immunotherapy childhood cancer research

The body’s immune system is robust and powerful—it can reject an entire transplant organ within minutes or hours if the mismatch is too severe. The moment it senses infection, the immune system wakes up and deploys cells to heal the body. 

So, why doesn’t the body attack cancer cells the same way it heals an infection?

The answer lies in the powerful, sinister ability of cancer cells to hide from the immune system, using cloaking technology that is a result of mutations and adaptions within these abnormal cells. As a result, tumor cells can grow without any interference. 

Immunotherapy, which aims to recruit the body’s own immune system to reject cancer as if it was a mismatched organ, is bringing hope in the fight against childhood cancer

We spoke with Ted Johnson, M.D., Ph.D, a clinical oncologist, researcher and ALSF Bio-Therapeutics Impact Grantee about the prospect of immunotherapy and how this treatment could lead to cure for childhood cancer 

Why doesn’t the immune system ramp up to kill cancer cells?
Tumors deploy a variety of mechanisms to hide and suppress immune system pathways. This “cloaking technology” tells the immune system that the tumor is normal tissue and should not be damaged.  When a tumor is damaged by treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, part of it dies. Sometimes the immune system does not recognize the dying part of the tumor as being foreign, and instead the immune system treats it like a wounded organ by actively repairing the tumor tissue, just like it would help heal a more normal wound in healthy tissue. 

So, if cancer has found a way to make the body believe it belongs there, how can the immune system be taught to recognize cancer as an invader?
Immunotherapy drugs and treatment protocols are working to wake up the immune system. When fully activated the immune system can successfully do its job and attack the cancer. The immune system can also leave behind memory cells that can reactivate later if it encounters the same problem again. We believe that robust immune responses against cancer will not only cure the first instance of disease but also target and prevent a relapse. 

What are the different types of immunotherapy?
There are several types of immunotherapy treatments being tested including:

  • Engineered immune cells, which are specifically designed to target cancer cells
  • Cancer vaccines, which stimulate immunity to targeted cancer cells
  • Checkpoint inhibitors, which stop cancer from suppressing immune responses
  • Antibody therapies, which can target cancer cells for destruction by the immune system
  • Signaling protein molecules (cytokines), which can stimulate immune cells in various ways 

Are there side effects of immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy drugs often have very few side effects, unlike chemotherapy and radiation. Children on treatment have a good chance of maintaining a high quality of life and being kids—going to school, participating in activities and doing everything children do. There is also hope that immunotherapy can be a safe treatment for infants who cannot tolerate the devastating side effects of other treatments.

There are some risks associated with treatment such as inflammation from tumor damage during treatment, which doctors monitor closely. There is also a long term increased risk of auto-immune disorders. 

What types of childhood cancer can be treated with immunotherapy?
Most researchers believe immunotherapy will ultimately be used to treat all types of childhood cancer. However, immunotherapy childhood cancer research is 5-10 years behind adult immunotherapy research. We are all working to fix that. 

ALSF funds several cutting edge immunotherapy projects, including a Phase 1 clinical trial led by Dr. Johnson at Augusta University, Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Georgia. Next week, check out the ALSF blog for the story about that Phase 1 Clinical Trial and how it is giving renewed hope to children battling relapsed brain tumors.

You can see the full list of immunotherapy projects funded by ALSF grants here.

ALSF is thankful for the amazing supporters that help us fund childhood cancer research. Share what you are thankful for.

Every day, we are thankful for YOU—the supporters, donors, researchers and hero families who move us all closer to cures for childhood cancer. The time, money, talents and passion each of you show to the cause is incredible. Thank you for carrying on Alex’s legacy and thank you for helping Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation find cures, one cup at time!

Tell us what you're thankful for this year in the comments below and share with your friends to see what they're thankful for!

About Monthly Shareables:
You can help Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation raise awareness of the need for childhood cancer research and cures for all children! Each month, we will share a new "shareable," an image for you to share with your social media network. Every time we start a conversation about childhood cancer, we bring ourselves closer to cures.

How To Share:
Sharing is easy! Links to the shareable on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are on the tabs below. Simply click on each tab and share, like and favorite! Thank you for helping ALSF fund innovative, cutting-edge childhood cancer research. 

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5 things you need to know about childhood cancer research

Right now, researchers are working around the clock thanks to your generous support to find breakthroughs and save the lives of kids fighting cancer.  

Here are 5 things you need to know about childhood cancer research:

1. Childhood cancer research does not happen overnight. From idea formulation to discovery to preclinical testing to clinical trial, research takes years before patients can access treatment. Childhood cancer research is 5-10 years behind similar research for adult cancers; making funding critical to help get our children closer to cures. ALSF funds all stages of the process—the early stages of ideas and data collection, preclinical research and clinical trial—to make sure childhood cancer research results in breakthrough treatments. 

2.  Building infrastructure helps expedite childhood cancer research and train the next generation of researchers. By funding clinical trial infrastructure development through our Center Of Excellence grants program, ALSF helps expedite the development of novel therapeutic approaches to treating childhood cancers. These Centers Of Excellence use funding to build their childhood cancer research programs ensuring that research continues for the long haul. 

3. Taking educated risks in research works. Our boards of scientists, researchers and nurses use a comprehensive review process to evaluate groundbreaking projects and  choose projects that take risks—all to accelerate us faster towards a cure. Testing cutting edge treatments, like immunotherapy and genetic testing are helping to save children’s lives now. 

4. Collaboration is the key to breakthroughs. Scientists, researchers and oncologists all work together to collect data, test therapies, analyze results and find cures. ALSF believes in collaboration. Annually, our Young Investigators Summit brings together top young researchers from all over the world to present, collaborate and share research. Our new bioinformatics lab will harness the power of big data, the data being generated by scientists researching childhood cancer, to help us get closer to a cure. 

5. Finding a cure for childhood cancer is not simple; but we are closer than ever before. Childhood cancer research is complex, time-consuming and requires collaboration. As we continue to push forward, we are closer to finding cures. ALSF has already funded over 650 research grants designed to push innovation further and accelerate the rate at which scientists can get funding. As our grant list grows, so will the breakthroughs and the cures. 

Read more about our grants program and meet our childhood cancer heroes.