Immunotherapy is treatment that uses certain parts of a person’s immune system to fight diseases such as cancer. This can be done in a couple of ways:
Some types of immunotherapy are also sometimes called biologic therapy or bio therapy.
In the last few decades immunotherapy has become an important part of treating some types of cancer. Newer types of immune treatments are now being studied, and they’ll impact how we treat cancer in the future.
Immunotherapy includes treatments that work in different ways. Some boost the body’s immune system in a very general way. Others help train the immune system to attack cancer cells specifically.
Immunotherapy works better for some types of cancer than for others. It’s used by itself for some of these cancers, but for others it seems to work better when used with other types of treatment.
Your immune system is a collection of organs, special cells, and substances that help protect you from infections and some other diseases. Immune cells and the substances they make travel through your body to protect it from germs that cause infections. They also help protect you from cancer in some ways.
The immune system keeps track of all of the substances normally found in the body. Any new substance that the immune system doesn’t recognize raises an alarm, causing the immune system to attack it. For example, germs contain substances such as certain proteins that are not normally found in the human body. The immune system sees these as “foreign” and attacks them. The immune response can destroy anything containing the foreign substance, such as germs or cancer cells.
The immune system has a tougher time targeting cancer cells, though. This is because cancer starts when cells become altered and start to grow out of control. The immune system doesn’t always recognize cancer cells as foreign.
Clearly there are limits on the immune system’s ability to fight cancer on its own, because many people with healthy immune systems still develop cancer. Sometimes the immune system doesn’t see the cancer cells as foreign because the cells aren’t different enough from normal cells. Sometimes the immune system recognizes the cancer cells, but the response might not be strong enough to destroy the cancer. Cancer cells themselves can also give off substances that keep the immune system in check.
To overcome this, researchers have found ways to help the immune system recognize cancer cells and strengthen its response so that it will destroy them.
The main types of immunotherapy now being used to treat cancer include:
Immunotherapy drugs are now used to treat many different types of cancer. For more information about immunotherapy as a treatment for a specific cancer, please see our information on that type of cancer.