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Exciting Innovations in Cancer Treatment for People and Pets

Story at-a-glance -

  • The immune system fights off cancer with three main types of cells
  • Unfortunately, cancer cells are constantly mutating and can overwhelm the ability of the immune system to fight back
  • One exciting advance in human cancer treatment is immuno-augmentative therapy, which focuses on making the immune system more efficient at fighting cancer
  • Immuno-augmentative therapy isn’t yet available in veterinary medicine, but Dr. Scanlan uses natural remedies, especially medicinal mushrooms and Chinese herbs, to treat animals with cancer

By Dr. Becker

Today I'm interviewing my friend and fellow holistic veterinarian Dr. Nancy Scanlan here at the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) conference. Dr. Scanlan is giving a lecture on the immune system and cancer, and I'm eager to hear what she's uncovered in her most recent research.

She explained that in her lecture she'll start with a discussion of the interaction between the immune system and cancer — how cancer fights off the immune system, as well as how the immune system fights off cancer.

"I'm going to end my talk with some really interesting things that are being done with the immune system in human medicine," said Dr. Scanlan. "It hasn't hit us veterinarians yet, but it's something to look forward to."

The Immune System's Cancer-Fighting Cells

I asked Dr. Scanlan to talk about how the immune system affects cancer.

"If everything is going well," she explained, "the immune system fights off cancer with two or three main types of cells. There are the macrophages, which are sort of general garbage eaters. There are natural killer cells. They don't just eat, they destroy. They look for abnormal cells.

The third type is the cytotoxic killer cell. These cells are primed to destroy a specific kind of cell. The way they get primed is the macrophages eat the cells and present pieces of them to the cytotoxic killer cells, which teaches the killer cells which type of cell to look for and destroy."

How Cancer Cells Hide From the Immune System

One of the ways cancer cells avoid being attacked by immune system cells is by hiding. One of the ways cancer cells hide is by coating themselves so the immune system can't see the markers that would normally tell it the cancer cells are abnormal for the body.

Another method cancer cells use to hide is by producing a specific antibody that prevents the immune system from recognizing them as cancer.

Since cancer cells are more or less an abnormal replication of naturally-occurring cells in the body, I asked Dr. Scanlan how the immune system recognizes them as abnormal.

"When you have abnormal cells, there are little markers on the outside that inform the immune system they are cancer," Dr. Scanlan explained.

"Also, cancer cells are constantly mutating, and the mutations have new kinds of markers. So even if the older cancer cells are hiding, new ones constantly appear and the immune system can recognize those as a problem.

The second thing the immune system does, is it sends out chemical signals like interferon that sort of jazz up the immune system so the parts of it that are working start working even better."

I asked Dr. Scanlan why the immune system doesn't always work when fighting cancer.

"Because cancer is so inventive," she replied. "It mutates so much that sooner or later there's an overwhelming population of cells the body can't handle, or the population is so dangerous and destroys so much tissue the body can't handle it.

Even though the immune system is successfully fighting against, say, 90 percent of the cancer cells, the remaining 10 percent gradually develops into the final, fatal disease."

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Exciting Advances in Human Cancer Research

Next I asked Dr. Scanlan to talk about advances in human cancer research. "One of the things they're doing is looking at ways to make the immune system more efficient," she replied.

For example, they'll draw blood from a person with cancer, remove the white blood cells and mix the remainder with pieces of the person's cancerous tumor.

They add certain things to sort of "supercharge" the blood cells, wait for them to multiply and return them to the cancer patient. These supercharged cells also have a memory that recognizes cancer cells when they reappear, even after months or years, and goes after them again.

It's almost like pulling out your blood, pulling out the tumor, reminding your blood what it was supposed to do and failed, giving it a pep talk and sending it back to fight the battle.

"That's it," agreed Dr. Scanlan. "And they've recruited more clones. They're cloning these things. It's like a multiplied army that's going back into battle."

I asked her if the technique is working. "Yes," she replied, "they've tried it with stage 3 and stage 4 cancers, which are the cancers that are growing and spreading to other parts of the body — the worst stages of cancer to have. Those are the ones they tested the technique on.

Some of them (tumors) went away. Others didn't go away, but they shrank and just sort of stayed there without growing any further. They've had some really good success with those, and especially on stage 3 and 4 melanomas, which are very difficult, as well as the really bad kind of breast cancer that women die in their 30s from."

Recommendations for Treating Canine Cancer

I asked Dr. Scanlan if this cancer treatment, called immuno-augmentative therapy, has implications in veterinary medicine.

"Absolutely," she replied. "First of all, it's kind of expensive. Since it is a relatively new therapy, they're still kind of working out the details.

But one of the things that will happen for vets is as more and more people are treated, the cost will come down because they're going to be more efficient at multiplying those cells. When it gets to a point where that's reasonable for animals, then it'll be our turn."

Since the treatment isn't yet available for pets, I asked Dr. Scanlan what she would recommend for a dog diagnosed with cancer today.

"There are two main things," she said. "One is to help the immune system itself. There are two main groups of herbs that really help it out. One is the whole mushroom family. There are a number of mushroom products out there.

They have done research on mushrooms and they actually stimulate the cells of the immune system in ways that are similar to immuno-augmentative therapy in humans. They make immune system cells stronger, more active, and able to make more of the little chemical messengers.

The second way is there are Chinese herbs that are really helpful and that specifically stimulate the immune system. In Chinese medicine, they call that Wei Chi. In addition, there are herbs that actually have specific effects on cancer cells.

They're not doing anything with the immune system, but they help beat back the cancer. They reveal the hidden markers and things like that. Things in the astragalus family or Chinese medicine with astragalus as part of the formula, formulas that have red clover in them, things like essiac and hoxsey.

There are a lot of them out there. Some are more effective than others. But holistic vets are familiar with them. We try to use the ones that have the most support behind them."

Where to Go for More Information on Cancer Research and Treatment

I asked Dr. Scanlan if she customizes natural treatment protocols based on the type of cancer a pet has. Are the therapies she mentions beneficial for all types of cancers — sarcomas, carcinomas, blood borne tumors?

She explained that in terms of immune boosters, they are generally good for all types of cancer with the caveat that we have to be a bit careful if the type of cancer the animal has is acting on the immune system, for example, lymphoma or leukemia. For those, she would go with an immune normalizer or modulator versus an immune booster.

Dr. Scanlan further explained there are formulas that are more effective for sarcomas, others for carcinomas, some that are more effective for soft tumors, different ones for small hard tumors, etc. I asked Dr. Scanlan where people can go to learn more about these things. She suggests that interested veterinarians become members of the AHVMA to keep up with cutting edge research.

"The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation (AHVMF) also has a place on their website where we are starting to publish news of these types of breakthroughs," said Dr. Scanlan, "including the things about herbs and herbal formulas, as well as immune therapies and things like that."

If you're a pet owner watching or reading here today and want more info, you can also visit the AHVMA and AHVMF websites. If there's no holistic veterinarian in your area, keep in mind that some veterinarians listed in the AHVMA site also do phone consultations. Many thanks to Dr. Nancy Scanlan for talking with us today about the latest in cancer research and treatments!