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Published on June 14, 2022

T-cells attacking cancer cell illustration

How Your Immune System Fights Cancer

The immune system has one job: to keep you alive. Whether you face a cut on your finger, COVID-19 or cancer – this system is spoiling for a fight.

“Each cell in this system has its own unique role in keeping us safe,” said John Lee, MD, Chief Medical Officer with Avera Cancer Institute. “They do more than fight. They learn, they teach other cells – it’s a fascinating ensemble.”

Lee and his team are leading research and clinical trials at the Avera Cancer Institute focused on how these killer cells might fight certain cancers.

Preprogrammed Killers Inside our Bodies

On the level of the single cell, the immune system certainly includes a gallery of tough – and smart – guys who are always on guard.

“Our bodies have T, B and NK cells, and the immune system can ‘educate’ all of them to eradicate cancer cells,” Lee said. “Antigen-presenting cells, who serve as teachers to these cells, and then they remove altered cancer cells.”

Lee said some cells are preprogrammed – like a group of NK cells – to find threats and invaders and destroy them.

Those threats might be bacteria, viruses like COVID-19 or cancer cells. “The entire immune system of cells serve as watchmen of sorts, working in our blood and tissues, always on the lookout for true threats,” Lee said.

Why the Immune System Sometimes Fails

Even with its legions of killer cells plus an impressive communications system that keeps everything from your toes to the top of your head under watch, threats can sometimes evade the immune system.

“Like almost all systems, our immune system is a result of nature and nurture, more specifically in this case our genetic ability to respond and our environments,” said Lee. “We have seen this in the wide responses to COVID-19. Certain individuals respond well; others do not."

Lee said we are beginning to understand what role the genetic immune ability plays. "In these settings, we're seeing how both genetics and environmental work in the development of severe disease, and these lessons hold true as we fight cancer," he said.

How Research Benefits Patients

That’s why Lee and his team are studying patients’ genetic codes and environment.

“We can alter areas of environment in patients with cancer, and we gather data via an analytics protocol,” he added.

The Avera research team looks at both patient and tumor genetics. They then look at the treatment environment and distill evidence. That data can lead to better outcomes, said Lee.

In addition, the hematology and cellular transplant teams offer CAR-T and CAR-NK cellular therapies.

“These therapies and clinical trials let us genetically alter T and NK cells so they will attack cancers,” Lee said.

Avera scientists are working to “help” the body's immune system when its cells are “missing the target” of tumor cells.

“While we have much to learn, our understanding of the immune system now is letting us bring therapies forward to bolster this life-saving system,” said Lee. “As we partner with it, we can team up to eradicate cancer.”

Learn more about Avera Cancer Institute’s research and clinical trials.

Read how one patient benefited from clinical trials at Avera.

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