On the first and second part of what happens when the immune system goes wrong, we looked at how the immune system can make a walk around the park a bane of summer and what happens when the immune system gets it wrong and mistakenly attack your dog’s body
In this blog we will look at how the immune system can be ‘hijacked’ in dogs who have cancer.
The immune system and cancer
One of the ways we know the immune system is linked to cancer is as a cause of the disease. Some types of cancer (e.g. lymphomas) arise when cells of the immune system – usually B cells – become faulty, grow out of control and become cancerous.
But this isn’t the only role the immune system can play in this disease.
For many years scientists believed the immune system might play a role in the development of cancer, or that the immune system might be altered some way in patients who have cancer.
Thanks to research, we now know that this is the case.
In recent years, medical professionals have discovered more and more about the role the immune system plays in cancer – both its development and its treatment.
As previously discussed, the role of the immune system is to stop ‘foreign’ invaders that shouldn’t be there. They seek out and destroy these potentially harmful enemies, preventing them from doing damage.
But the immune system’s defensive role isn’t restricted to ‘foreign’ entities that enter your dog’s body. It also protects against potential damage by rouge or faulty cells that shouldn’t be there. Because if these rogue, faulty cells aren’t removed and are allowed to divide and grow, they have the potential to develop into cancer.
We now know that in many cases of canine cancer, this is what happens. Rogue, faulty cells employ extremely clever tricks and tactics to confuse your dog’s immune system and fool it into thinking it should be there. That it should be left alone and not destroyed or removed.
Not only that, but it’s also been shown that cancer cells are so clever they can coerce the immune system into actually helping them grow.
The good news is that all of this increased knowledge has led to scientists and vets being able to develop drugs that can boost and harness the power the immune system usually has (when not being hood-winked by cancer cells) and use this as a way to fight the disease.
In recent years there’s been a huge surge in the development of a type of drug called ‘immunotherapies’. Typically, there are two types – ones that act by ‘unmasking’ the cancer cells, flagging them to the immune system so that it can see and destroy them, and ones that work by ‘boosting’ the immune system so that it’s better at killing cancer cells when it spots them.
Immunotherapies haven’t been shown to work as a treatment for all types of cancer, so if your dog is diagnosed with the disease, don’t be disappointed if your vet doesn’t prescribe them – they’ll know what treatment is best for your dog and the type of cancer they have.
It’s also important to remember that like any drug, immunotherapies have side effects. And in the case of these drugs, those side effects can be very serious, sometimes even life threatening. Work is ongoing to understand more about why some patients treated with immunotherapies respond better and why the drugs work really well for some cancers, but not others.
In the last three blogs I’ve spoken about what can happen when the immune system turns from a friend to a foe.
While it’s important to know how and when this can happen – and what you can do if it does, it’s also important to remember that for most dogs, their immune system is working fine. Not only that, it’s protecting them on a daily basis.
And you can help it do its job even better. How? Through vaccination, excercise and food.
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