Immunotherapy medicines use the power of your body’s immune system to attack cancer cells.
Cancer immunotherapy medicines work by helping your immune system work harder or more efficiently to fight cancer cells. Immunotherapy uses substances — either made naturally by your body or man-made in a lab — to boost the immune system to:
- stop or slow cancer cell growth
- stop cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body
- be better at killing cancer cells
Keytruda (chemical name: pembrolizumab) is a type of immunotherapy known as an immune checkpoint inhibitor.
To start an immune system response to a foreign invader, the immune system has to be able to tell the difference between cells or substances that are “self” (part of you) versus “non-self” (not part of you and possibly harmful). Your body’s cells have proteins on their surfaces or inside them that help the immune system recognize them as “self.”
Some of these proteins that help your immune system recognize “self” cells are called immune checkpoints. Cancer cells sometimes find ways to use these immune checkpoint proteins as a shield to avoid being identified and attacked by the immune system.
Immune system cells called T cells roam throughout the body looking for signs of disease or infection. When T cells meet another cell, they analyze certain proteins on the cell’s surface, which helps the T cell identify the cell. If the surface proteins signal that the cell is normal and healthy, the T cell leaves it alone. If the surface proteins suggest the cell is cancerous or unhealthy in another way, the T cell starts an attack against it. Once T cells start an attack, the immune system begins to make more specialized proteins that prevent this attack from damaging normal cells and tissues in the body. These specialized proteins that keep healthy cells and tissues safe are called immune checkpoints.
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