What Is Immunotherapy and How Does It Fight Cancer?


Chris Iliades, MD

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Your immune system is your body’s defense system. When it detects a substance that should not be in your body, it mounts an attack to destroy it. This works well against germs like viruses. It does not do as well against cancer cells. Cancer immunotherapy is a group of treatments that help your immune system find and fight cancer.

The Basics of Immunotherapy

Your immune system has a hard time recognizing cancer cells. Cancer cells are also tricky. They can avoid detection by hiding from your immune system. They can also use proteins to block or weaken the immune system’s attack.

What is immunotherapy, and how can it fight cancer? These experts explain this exciting new treatment.

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In recent years, researchers have been finding more ways to help your immune system find and attack cancer cells. Different immunotherapy drugs work by:

  • Stimulating and strengthening your immune system
  • Adding man-made proteins that your immune system can use against cancer cells
  • Blocking signals from cancer cells that make it hard for your immune system to find and attack them

Immunotherapy differs from other types of cancer treatment because it uses your body’s own ability to fight cancer. It may be the biggest breakthrough in cancer treatment since chemotherapy arrived 60 years ago.

Types of Cancer Immunotherapies

There are many types of cancer immunotherapies today and more are on the way. Some types work better for some cancers than others and, as like other cancer drugs, not everyone responds to immunotherapy the same way. Here are just a few examples of cancer immunotherapy drugs:

  • Man-made antibodies. These are proteins that your immune system can use to target and attack cancer cells. Examples include antibodies attached to cancer killing drugs, radioactive particles, and bacterial toxin (poison). When the man-made antibody finds cancer cells, the attachment can kill the cancer cell.

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors. These are drugs that keep proteins on cancer cells from slowing down an immune response. They can prevent cancer cells from hiding from your immune system.

  • Cancer vaccines. One way to help your immune system attack cancer cells is with a vaccine. Proteins from cancer cells—called antigens—can teach your immune system to recognize the cancer cells. After you get a man-made cancer vaccine, your immune system will be better at finding and killing real cancer cells.

  • Immune cell therapy. This immunotherapy looks for immune cells that have already attacked cancer cells. Some of these cells—called T cells—do a better job than other T cells of finding and attacking cancer cells. These specific T cells can be removed from cancer cells and grown in a laboratory. Large quantities of these cells are then put back in your body to help your immune system kill even more cancer cells. This treatment is called adoptive cell transfer (ACT).

Immunotherapy for cancer is an active area of research. Many immunotherapies are already available for many cancers. One way to try these new treatments is to join a clinical trial. By doing so, you may be able to get the latest type of immunotherapy for cancer.

Immunotherapy may offer longer and more powerful protection from cancer than older treatments. There may also be fewer side effects. Ask your doctor if immunotherapy might be a good way to treat your cancer.

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Medical Reviewers: Farrokh Sohrabi, MD Last Review Date: Feb 19, 2016

© 2018 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. What Is Cancer Immunotherapy? American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/immunotherapy/immunotherapy-...
  2. Understanding Immunotherapy. American Society of Clinical Oncology. http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/immunotherapy-and-vaccines/understan...
  3. Immunotherapy: Using the Immune System to Treat Cancer. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/research/areas/treatment/immunotherapy-using-immune-system
  4. What Is Cancer Immunotherapy? Cancer Research Institute. http://www.cancerresearch.org/cancer-immunotherapy/what-is-cancer-immunotherapy

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