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Immunotherapy is an innovative and advanced form of targeted cancer therapy that boosts your body’s own immune system and defense mechanisms to fight cancer at the cellular level. Unlike traditional cancer treatments that 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.

Immunotherapy drugs are used to treat many different types of cancer. While chemotherapy works by killing cancer cells, it cannot tell the difference between cancer cells and normal cells. Immunotherapy is treatment that uses certain parts of a person’s immune system to fight diseases such as cancer.

This can be done in two ways:

  • Stimulating your own immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells.
  • Giving your immune system components, such as man-made immune system proteins.
Immunotherapy may be used alone or in combination with other types of treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Immunotherapy is usually administered as an IV, oral, or topical application.

Types of Immunotherapies

Most immunotherapy treatments fall into five primary categories.

Monoclonal antibodies
  • Cancer cells have proteins on the surface of the cell called antigens. In the lab, an antibody can be created which attaches directly to that protein which may be specific for that tumor. This attachment can do many things to disrupt the ability of the cell to grow or spread, or it may make the cell more vulnerable to attack by the immune system.
  • Immune check point inhibitors are a type of monoclonal antibody that disrupts the cancer cell defense against the immune system and, in many cases, allows the immune system to destroy these cancer cells.
Adoptive cell therapy
  • Adoptive cell therapy differs from monoclonal antibodies in that the lymphocytes are directly harvested from the patient and multiplied in a lab. These cells can be modified, augmented, and then administered to the patient as a form of immune cellular therapy against the cancer.
  • Chimeric antigen cell therapy (CAR-T) is a personalized therapy in which a patient’s own immune cells are removed from the patient’s body, genetically reprogrammed, then infused back into the patient to identify and attack their cancer as a one-time treatment.
Cancer vaccines
  • Most vaccines are given to prevent a disease (including some viruses that can cause cancer), but cancer treatment vaccines are given after a person has been diagnosed with cancer to help increase the body’s ability to fight tumor growth, limit the spread of cancer cells, and reduce the risk of recurrence.
  • Vaccines are another form of immunotherapy, and many are in development. Peptide vaccines are based on stimulating an immune response against a protein commonly present on certain cancer cells. Dendritic cell vaccines are a type of cell-based therapy and require removal of the cells that present proteins to the immune system (called dendritic cells). These extracted dendritic cells can then be activated and programmed to recognize cancer cells based on common cancer proteins.
  • Vaccines may be personalized, using tissue from a person’s individual cancer and combined with substances in a lab to develop a vaccine tailored to their immune system.
Non-specific immunotherapies (cytokines)
  • Some immunotherapy drugs and proteins don’t target cancer cells specifically, but instead boost the immune system, leading it to a better response to cancer cells. The cytokines (interleukins and interferons) are capable of activating a broad array of immune cells with the potential benefit of fighting infections or cancer.
  • Cytokines are given most often in combination with other treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, but they can be administered as the primary treatment.
T-cell promoters
  • Some drugs restore or promote T-cell activity by blocking the defenses of tumor cells. These include PD-1 and PD-L1 inhibitors and ipilimumab, which uses a different mechanism, but enhances the tumor killing activity of T-cells.
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.

Immunotherapy Resources

Additional resources help you learn more about immunotherapy: