7 Things to Know About Immunotherapy for Cancer

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Sarah Lewis, PharmD on September 29, 2021
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    Immunotherapy: A Unique and Powerful Weapon Against Cancer
    Together, advances in immunology research and cancer detection paved the way for modern immunotherapy for cancer, or immuno-oncology. Starting in the 1990s, laboratories generated special types of therapeutic antibodies to target breast cancer and lymphoma. Now, monoclonal antibodies and other immunologic therapies are available for many types of cancer, and the list is growing. If you or someone you care about has cancer, it’s worth learning more about this powerful anticancer treatment.
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    1. Immunotherapy uses your body’s own immune system to fight cancer.
    Your immune system is responsible for fighting foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. It normally leaves your own cells alone. When cancer develops, the immune system can sometimes detect the abnormal cells and begin an attack. However, cancer cells are very good at slipping past the immune system and even inhibiting it. Immunotherapy boosts your immune system so it can more effectively recognize and fight cancer.
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    2. There are several types of immunotherapies.
    Immunotherapy includes many types of biologic substances—materials from living things. There are nonspecific therapies, such as interferons and interleukins. These proteins boost the overall immune system. There are also specific therapies, such as monoclonal antibodies and cancer vaccines. Monoclonal antibodies attach to specific receptors on the surface of cells. This can help identify cells for destruction, interfere with cell growth, or deliver toxic substances directly to the cell. Cancer vaccines train the immune system to react to cancer cells. Labs make some immunotherapies; the rest are produced by pharmaceutical companies.
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    3. Immunotherapy can use certain bacteria and viruses to fight cancer.
    Bacteria and viruses are normally foreign invaders that cause infection. However, it is possible to use certain types of them to fight cancer. The bacterium, BCG for short, is a treatment for bladder cancer. Doctors instill a weakened form of it into the bladder where it causes an immune response, which attacks the cancer. Similarly, doctors inject modified viruses directly into a tumor. They are called oncolytic viruses. They enter cancer cells and make many copies of themselves, which eventually causes the cancer cells to burst and release proteins that attract the immune system.
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    4. Not all immunotherapies are injections.
    Many immunotherapies are injections or infusions that doctors give through your veins or into a tumor. However, there are also immunotherapies you take by mouth or apply to skin. You may get immunotherapy treatments in cycles or on a regular basis. It depends on the specific type, your cancer, and your response. Cycles give your body a period of rest in between treatments.
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    5. Immunotherapy can cause side effects.
    Like any medication, immunotherapy can cause side effects. For injectable treatments, the most common side effect is a reaction at the injection site. This can include pain, swelling, redness, itching and tenderness. Flu-like symptoms are also common because the treatment amplifies your immune system. This can include fever, chills, body aches, fatigue, and headache. There are ways to manage and prevent these side effects. Talk with your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.
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    6. Immunotherapy can treat many types of cancer.
    Immunotherapy is not as common as traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation. This is partly because some cancers respond better to it than others. It can be the main treatment for some cancers. It is just part of an overall treatment plan for others. Doctors commonly use immunotherapy to treat bladder cancer, blood cancers, lung cancer, melanoma, and prostate cancer. Other cancers that may benefit from immunotherapy include breast cancer, kidney cancer, and uterine cancer. Talk with your doctor to see if immunotherapy is an option for your cancer.
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    7. Researchers continue to develop new immunotherapies, such as T cell therapy.
    Researchers continue to study immunotherapy for cancer. They are looking at using current therapies for more cancers, such as cancer vaccines for pancreatic cancer. They are also developing new immunotherapies, such as adoptive cell transfer (ACT). ACT takes T cells—a type of white blood cell—from your body and isolates the ones most active against your cancer. Researchers grow large populations of those harvested T cells in a lab and inject them back into your body. This should result in a greater immune response to the cancer. Many other potential immunotherapies are still in clinical trials. Another ACT strategy is chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy. The first of these CAR-T therapies, tisagenlecleucel (Kymriah), recently received FDA approval for pediatric and young adult B-cell ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia). Ask your doctor if there is a clinical trial for your cancer type.
Immunotherapy for Cancer | Monoclonal Antibodies & Cancer Vaccines

About The Author

Sarah Lewis is a pharmacist and a medical writer with over 25 years of experience in various areas of pharmacy practice. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from West Virginia University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She completed Pharmacy Practice Residency training at the University of Pittsburgh/VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 
  1. Immunotherapy. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/immunotherapy
  2. Immunotherapy: Using the Immune System to Treat Cancer. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/research/areas/treatment/immunotherapy-using-immune-system
  3. Understanding Immunotherapy. American Society of Clinical Oncology. http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/immunotherapy-and-vaccines/understanding-immunotherapy
  4. What Are Cancer Vaccines? American Society of Clinical Oncology. http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/immunotherapy-and-vaccines/what-are-cancer-vaccines
  5. What Is Cancer Immunotherapy? American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/immunotherapy/what-is-immunotherapy.html
  6. Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Immunotherapy. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-treatment-immunotherapy.html
  7. FDA Approval Brings First Gene Therapy to the United States. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm574058.htm
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Last Review Date: 2021 Sep 29
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