The immune system is not a single system so much as a collection of related reactions and responses that the human body uses to protect itself from bacteria, viruses, and other threats. (1) For example, the skin is one of the most important components of the immune system because it is a water-proof barrier that prevents most potential threats from penetrating further into sensitive tissues, but so are the mucous membranes that line the cavities, which produce mucous for trapping potential threats that can sneak in through said openings. In fact, even the gastric juice of the stomach can be considered part of the immune system because it can kill the bacteria that manage to make their way into the human body by clinging onto swallowed mouthfuls of food.
How Does the Immune System Deal with Cancer?
One of the most powerful components of the immune system are the cells that kill foreign materials found inside the human body, which have an important role in combating cancer but could become even more important in the near future with some assistance from human science. In short, immune cells are more than capable of killing cancerous cells so long as they recognize them as foreign materials, which is much more complicated than it sounds. (2)
This is because immune cells respond to foreign materials based on their release of antigens, but pass over the cells of the human body, which possesses certain proteins that mark them as being on the same side. Since cancerous cells start out as normal cells but become cancerous by mutating, they don’t start releasing antigens until some time into the process. In most cases, this is when the immune cells swoop in to kill the cancerous cells, thus preventing the problem at its source. However, some cancerous cells also pick up other mutations that mark them as being on the same side as the immune cells in spite of their changes, meaning that they will remain untouched by the immune system.
What Is Immune Engineering?
Until recent times, we understood little about the relationship between the immune system and the cancerous cells that can spring up throughout the human body. As a result, using the immune system in order to combat cancer was not possible, particularly since we also lacked an understanding of the internal components of the immune system. However, researchers have been learning more and more about these topics over time, with the result that immune engineering is no longer a matter of speculation but something that is expected to see widespread use in the near future.
In short, there have been a number of recent efforts to use the immune system to combat cancer, which have led to a number of results. For example, some researchers have come up with vaccines that can teach the immune system to target precancerous cells in much the same manner that other vaccines teach the immune system to target other potential threats. However, one of the most interesting is immune engineering, which changes the immune cells in order to make them better for combating cancer. (3)
Like its name suggests, immune engineering means using gene-editing as well as other methods to make immune cells more capable of recognizing cancerous cells, which in turn, makes them more capable of killing them as well. Generally speaking, this means taking someone’s immune cells and then changing the set of instructions that tell them what to look for before returning them to that person’s body so that they can get to work on the particular kind of cancer that threatens them. While this sounds more like fantasy than reality, it is nonetheless something that has been proven to provide results, so much so that they could be launched out onto the open market within the span of 1 to 2 years.
Of course, immune engineering is not without its challenges, though it should be mentioned that researchers are also laboring to solve these challenges as soon as they think of them. For example, researchers prefer using the patient’s own immune cells because those will not attack their healthy tissues, but this is not always possible because some patients have so few immune cells that they cannot spare them for such uses. As a result, researchers came up with a way to strip out the set of instructions stored in immune cells to keep them from recognizing foreign substances, thus making them suitable for universal use rather than the person who had provided them in the first place.
This is important because immune cells can be as dangerous to healthy tissues as they are to cancerous cells when they start recognizing the former as foreign materials, as shown by the potential consequences of serious autoimmune conditions. As a result, serious mistakes when messing around with immune cells used for combating cancer can have horrendous consequences, which is why so much effort is being put into workarounds for said issue.
What Does Immune Engineering Mean for the Fight Against Cancer?
Cancer is not a single condition so much as a collection of conditions that share a similar mechanism. As a result, it seems probable that there will never be a universal cure for all of the cancers that can come into being. However, as immune engineering becomes more and more reliable with each successive effort, it seems probable that a wide range of cancer patients will have more and more cause for feeling hope that their conditions can be cured in time to save them from the worst.
From a broader perspective, immune engineering is even more interesting. After all, if we understand immune cells so well that we can actually provide them with new targeting instructions, how else can we change the cells that make up the countless processes of the human body to improve their functions? Some examples are simple, such as changing immune cells in order to make them better able to target not just cancerous cells but also other serious threats to human health. In contrast, other examples are much wilder in concept, not to mention much more exciting as well in their implications. No matter how this turns out, it seems probable that the near future will prove to be an interesting one.