How the Immune System Attacks Cancer

September 1, 2012 — Leave a comment
The Immune System Attacks Cancer Cells

Immune System Tutorial #2

Improving the health of a suppressed or compromised immune system requires a multi-programmed approach – it also requires a general understanding of how your immune system works.

The immune system is a mind-boggling complex set of coordinated cells and proteins. There is much that researchers don’t know about its intricacies and interconnectedness. It is easy to quickly get bogged down in the details which get in the way of understanding the concepts.

My purpose is to describe the immune system, as it relates to attacking cancer, stripped to its essence. I’ll give you the briefest of overviews limiting myself in this tutorial to only a few words that are part of the official immune system vocabulary, which is immense.

This is like saying I’ll describe the works of Shakespeare by noting it contains the words ‘thee,’ ‘methinks,’ ‘thou art,’ ‘alas,’ and ‘foresooth.’ Nevertheless, the key concepts of how a healthy immune system attacks cancer is all you will need to know.

Self / Not-Self

The immune system’s job is to protect us against living invaders, toxins, and other menaces such as cancer.

To do its job, an immune cell needs to correctly determine friend from foe, or “self” from “not-self.” The scope of this task is astounding. There are trillions of cells in your body that must be recognized and protected.

All of your body’s cells have cell-specific markers on their surface which act as proof of identity. There are identical “bumps” all over the surface of each cell. These “bumps” or structures are a special arrangement of protein molecules found on the cell’s exterior surface.

These structures are the cells identification papers. In other words, all of the cells of my body are labeled with the same identical shaped proteins that signal to my immune system, “I’m one of you, I belong.”

A cell that doesn’t have the proper shape or marker on its surface is immediately destroyed by the immune fighting forces which are constantly on patrol. Each bacteria, virus, fungus, and parasite has its own individual cell markers different from those of your body.

Cells that display “not-self” markers raise an alarm in your body causing the immune system to react and attack.  These “not-self” markers are called antigens..

When a cell transforms itself to a cancer cell, its behavior and characteristics change sharply from that of normal cells. It is significant that cancer cells  produce surface proteins that are different from that of your normal cells. Proteins that say “not-self.” These surface proteins are called tumor antigens. A tumor antigen causes specific immune cells to identify it as an enemy.

A cancer cell also “smells” different than a normal cell. It releases chemical traces that create a path for your immune cells to follow to find their way to the battlefield. Just as a bloodhound follows a scent, special immune cells can “smell-out” and track down cancer cells.

There are many other significant changes to cancer cells, but these two (it “feels” different and it “smells” different) are particularly important in our discussion of your immune system’s attack on cancer.

In Tutorial #3 you will meet a cancer cell’s worst nightmare.

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