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Biological response modifiers (BRMs) change the way the body's defenses interact with cancer cells. BRMs are produced in a laboratory and given to patients to:
Boost the body's ability to fight the disease
Direct the immune system's disease fighting powers to disease cells
Strengthen a weakened immune system
BRMs include interferons, interleukins, colony-stimulating factors, monoclonal antibodies, cytokine therapy, and vaccines.
Interferons (IFN) are a type of biological response modifier that naturally occurs in the body. They are also produced in the laboratory and given to cancer patients in biological therapy. They have been shown to improve the way a cancer patient's immune system acts against cancer cells. Interferons may work directly on cancer cells to slow their growth, or they may cause cancer cells to change into cells with more normal behavior. Some interferons may also stimulate natural killer cells (NK) cells, T cells, and macrophages - types of white blood cells in the bloodstream that help to fight cancer cells.
Interleukins (IL) stimulate the growth and activity of many immune cells. They are proteins (cytokines) that occur naturally in the body, but can also be made in the laboratory. Some interleukins stimulate the growth and activity of immune cells, such as lymphocytes, which work to destroy cancer cells.
Colony-stimulating factors (CSFs)
Colony-stimulating factors (CSFs) are proteins given to patients to encourage stem cells within the bone marrow to produce more blood cells. The body constantly needs new white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets, especially when cancer is present. CSFs are given, along with chemotherapy, to help boost the immune system. When cancer patients receive chemotherapy, the bone marrow's ability to produce new blood cells is suppressed, making patients more prone to developing infections. Parts of the immune system cannot function without blood cells, thus colony-stimulating factors encourage the bone marrow stem cells to produce white blood cells, platelets, and red blood cells. With proper cell production, other cancer treatments can continue enabling patients to safely receive higher doses of chemotherapy.
Monoclonal antibodies are agents, produced in the laboratory, that bind to cancer cells. When cancer-destroying agents are introduced into the body, they seek out the antibodies and kill the cancer cells. Monoclonal antibody agents do not destroy healthy cells.
Cytokine therapy uses proteins (cytokines) to help your immune system recognize and destroy those cells that are cancerous. Cytokines are produced naturally in the body by the immune system, but can also be produced in the laboratory. This therapy is used with advanced melanoma and with adjuvant therapy (therapy given after or in addition to the primary cancer treatment). Cytokine therapy reaches all parts of the body to kill cancer cells and prevent tumors from growing.
Vaccine therapy is still an experimental biological therapy. The benefit of vaccine therapy has not yet been proven. With infectious diseases, vaccines are given before the disease develops. Cancer vaccines, however, are given after the disease develops, when the tumor is small. Scientists are testing the value of vaccines for melanoma and other cancers. Sometimes, vaccines are combined with other therapies such as cytokine therapy.