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How your Immune System Fights Cancer

The body’s response to disease

Our bodies are equipped with a highly evolved immune system custom made to rid the body of things that threaten our health: bacteria, viruses—even cancers.

How does your immune system target diseases? A large part of this answer can be found in the “ABCDs” of the immune system:

  • Antibodies—proteins that bind to antigens on harmful invaders in the body (eg, germs and viruses). Also mark cells for attack and destruction by other immune cells

  • B cells—cells that release antibodies to defend against harmful invaders in the body. Each is programmed to make one specific antibody (eg, to the common cold virus)

  • CD8+ killer T cells—cells that destroy thousands of virus-infected cells each day. CD8+ killer T cells even seek out and destroy cancer cells

  • Cytokines—messenger molecules that help immune cells communicate with each other to coordinate the right immune response

  • Dendritic cells—cells that digest foreign and cancerous cells and present their proteins to immune cells that destroy them

Additional immune support cells include:

  • CD4+ helper T cells—cells that send “help” signals to the other immune cells (ie, CD8+ killer T cells) to make them more efficient at destroying harmful invaders. Also maintain lines of communication with B cells

  • Regulatory T cells—cells that provide the checks and balances to ensure that the immune system does not overreact

  • Macrophages—cells known as the “big eaters” of the immune system for their ability to engulf and destroy bacteria and other harmful things. They also present antigens to other cells of the immune system

Below is an overview of the different players in the immune system and how they join forces to answer the call of your body's defense

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