Can Any “Alternative” Cancer Treatment Strengthen the Immune System?

Saul Green, Ph.D., Stephen Barrett, M.D.
January 21, 2008

The term “immune system”—as recognized by scientists—refers to the enormously complex interaction of many types of cells (T-cells, B-cells, N-K cells, helper cells, suppressor cells, macrophages, etc.), cell products (many lymphokines, cytokines and cytotoxins), other substances (chemicals, hormones), and physical agents (X-rays, ultraviolet light). At this time there is no single, valid measure of an individual’s “immunocompetence.” What we do have is various tests related to the body’s ability to react to the foreign proteins found in viruses, bacteria, foods, and other sources. These tests include:

  • Protein electrophoresis, to measure the types and amounts of immunoglobulins in the serum of the patient. Antibodies are immunoglobulins, but not all immunoglobulins are antibodies.
  • Immunoelectrophoresis, to identify the amount and kind of immunoglobulins but not specific antibodies.
  • Immunochemical electrophoresis, to identify specific antibodies in the serum.
  • Allergy tests, to determine the presence or absence of antibodies in the blood stream.
  • Patch testing, using chemicals like CDNB), PPD, mumps skin test, etc., is used together with allergy tests.
  • The determination of the proportion of T-4 and T-8 cells in the blood of the patient (cellular immune system).

Properly used, the term “immunosuppressed” refers to evidence based on the above tests, that a malfunction exists in a patient’s immune system. To define the malfunction, one must identify the specific fault in the system. A conclusion that someone is immunosuppressed should be based on precise and extensive testing. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy sometimes decrease immune function. But unless there is complete destruction—which is rare—recovery will take place, and rebound above the normal level of activity may occur.

Some types of cancer can depress immune function. These include Hodgkin’s disease (T-cell depression), AIDS (T-cell depression), chronic lymphatic leukemia, (T-cell suppression), multiple myeloma, (B-cell suppression) and lymphomas in general, (B cell suppression.). In these conditions, successful use of chemotherapy or radiation to reduce or destroy these cancers often causes a return to normal immunocompetence. This fact is in sharp contrast with simplistic statements that “chemotherapy destroys the immune system and renders its incapable of fighting the cancer.”

Thus the notion that cancer represents a failure of the immune system is simplistic. In the late 1950s, it was hypothesized that the immune system guards against cancer cells in ways similar to its protection against infectious organisms. However, subsequent research has demonstrated that relationships between cancers and the immune system are highly complex and that successful tumors develop “tolerance” mechanisms that enable them to invade the body without activating immune responses that would destroy them. The rapidly developing science of cancer immunotherapy is aimed at detecting and defeating these mechanisms. One way might be to mobilize T- cells to attack and destroy cancers, but this will not be simple to do [2]. Merely increasing the number of such cells won’t work. Thus the odds that any dietary measure, herb, or other “alternative” approach will solve the problem of cancer by increasing immune surveillance should be regarded as zero.

  1. Green S. Can alternative treatments induce immune surveillance over cancer in humans? The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, Spring/Summer 2000.
  2. Pardell DM. Immunology and Cancer. In Abeloff MD and others, (editors). Clinical Oncology, Third Edition. Philadelphia: Elsevier / Churchill Livingstone, 2004, pp 113-138.

Dr. Green (1925-2007) was a biochemist who did cancer research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for 23 years. He consulted on scientific methodology and had a special interest in unproven methods. This article was written by Dr. Green in 2000 and updated by Dr. Barrett after his death.

This article was revised on January 21, 2008.