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Immunotherapy is an advanced form of cancer treatment that boosts your body’s own immune system to fight cancer. This rapidly advancing field was named by Science as the 2013 Breakthrough of the Year. It is a refreshingly direct approach – fighting a cellular disease at the cellular level.

Typically, the human immune system is incredibly effective at fighting disease, except when the disease is cancer. Immunotherapy is the next frontier in cancer treatment.

How Immunotherapy Works

Foreign pathogens like bacteria or viruses enter the human body and cause disease. To fight these, the immune system makes antibodies which bind to the antigen and destroy the disease. Unlike traditional cancer treatments which target the cells in tumors, immunotherapy drugs boost the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells to stop or slow their growth or limit the cancer’s ability to spread.

If immunotherapy is appropriate to treat your cancer, you will be given drugs that enhance the immune system, in effect giving it a booster shot and allowing it pack a superpunch. Depending on your cancer type, immunotherapy may be prescribed in conjunction with other therapies.

Types of Immunotherapies

Adoptive Therapy/Monoclonal Antibodies:

  • Cancer cells have antigens which the immune system fights with specific antibodies. The antibodies find specific antigens in the cancer cells, which are then attacked by your body’s immune system.
  • In a lab, researchers design and copy immune system cells called antibodies that target proteins found on specific cancer cells. Once they are injected into your body, the antibodies are on a seek and destroy mission. The new antibodies circulate in the blood until they find cancer cells containing the protein. They attach to the cancer cell’s protein and then recruit other parts of the immune system to destroy or neutralize the cell.
  • The antibodies only attack the targeted cancer cells that have the specific antigen. Since your healthy cells don’t have the antigen, the antibodies leave them alone, sparing them and creating fewer side effects.
  • Some antibodies may be paired with radioactive particles or chemotherapy. When the antibodies attach to their specific antigens, medication is delivered directly to cancer cells.


  • Most vaccines are given to prevent a disease (including some viruses that can cause cancer). However, cancer treatment vaccines are given to you after you have been diagnosed.
  • Vaccines may be used to help your body fight cancer, limit or slow the cancer’s ability to spread, or to prevent a recurrence since your immune system has a “memory” of how it has fought diseases in the past.
  • Cancer treatment vaccines may be given with other therapies to increase your immune response.
  • Vaccines may be personalized by using tissue from your individual cancer to develop the vaccine and tailor it to your immune system. Physicians remove some of your immune cells from the blood and send them to a lab. There, the cells are exposed to specific manufactured proteins that produce an immune response to cancer. The cells are then infused back into your body. The cells help other cells in the immune system attack cancer cells.

Non-Specific Immunotherapies:

  • Some immunotherapy drugs and proteins don’t target cancer cells specifically, but instead boost the immune system, leading to a better response to cancer cells.
  • Interleukins are capable of helping immune system cells grow and divide more quickly, and interferons help the body resist viral infections and cancer. While your body makes these naturally, injecting additional interleukins or interferons, can assist your body’s immune system.

Not every cancer type is receptive to targeted therapies. Researchers recently made several promising discoveries about cancer types previously thought unresponsive to immunotherapies. Talk with your doctor about whether immunotherapies are available for your cancer. You may be eligible to take part in a clinical trial.

Additional resources help you learn more about targeted therapies: