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What is Immunotherapy?

Illustration showing traditional cancer therapies and cancer immunotherapies
Immunotherapy is a type of biologic cancer treatment that boosts the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer. Your body’s immune system works to detect something that is harmful, and it produces antibodies, which are proteins that fight infection.

How does Immunotherapy work?

Immunotherapy works in a variety of ways, by stopping or slowing growth of cancer cells, and by stopping cancer cells from spreading to other areas in the body. It helps a patient’s immune system work better at destroying existing cancer cells that have developed in the body.

Are there different kinds of Immunotherapy?

There are several types of immunotherapy treatments and each of them work in different ways. Some boost the body’s immune system and others help train the immune system to specifically attack cancer cells.

Monoclonal antibodies are a type of immunotherapy. They are made in a laboratory to closely match natural immune system proteins. They are designed to attach to specific proteins on cancer cells which in turn directs the immune system to find and destroy these kinds of cells.

Other types of antibodies stimulate the body’s natural immune system so it can destroy cancer cells. When the immune system can find these cells, it can stop or slow cancer growth.

Interferons and interleukins are two other common, non-specific immunotherapies. Both are made in a laboratory. Interferons help the immune system fight cancer and may slow the growth of cancer cell in the body, while interleukins help the body’s natural immune system produce cells that will destroy cancer.

Oncolytic virus therapy is a form of immunotherapy that uses genetically modified viruses to kill cancer cells. The first therapy of this kind was approved by the FDA in 2015 to treat melanoma. Researchers are currently testing other oncolytic viruses for different types of cancer in clinical trials, and they are also testing the viruses in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy.

T-cell therapy is currently available for only a handful of cancers and many more therapies are being evaluated in clinical trials. In T-cell therapy, some T-cells which are immune cells that fight infection, are removed from a patient’s blood. These cells then are changed in a laboratory, so they have specific proteins called receptors; these receptors then can recognize the cancer cells. The changed T-cells are returned to the patient’s body. Once there, they seek out and destroy cancer cells.

Cancer vaccines work by exposing the immune system to an antigen, which in turn triggers the immune system to recognize and destroy the antigen. There are currently 2 types of vaccines: prevention vaccines and treatment vaccines. You have probably heard of the HPV vaccine that protects against the human papillomavirus that is most widely known for causing Cervical Cancer. There is also a Hepatitis B vaccine which prevents a Hepatitis B virus infection that can cause liver cancer.

As a cancer treatment, cancer treatment vaccines (also known as therapeutic vaccines) are given to people with some type of cancer to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight a cancer. Therapeutic vaccines may prevent cancer from reoccurring, may destroy cancer cells that remain in the body after treatment, and slow or stop the growth or spread of cancer. Currently, most of these treatment vaccines are only available through clinical trials.