Immunotherapy cancer treatment at a glance
- Immunotherapy for cancer involves medications and treatments that boost and support the body’s immune system to attack and destroy cancer cells.
- Immunotherapy can treat a wide range of cancers and has the potential to one day be an effective tool for all types of cancer.
- It may be administered intravenously, orally, topically or via catheter.
- Because immunotherapy is a rapidly developing field of research, some treatment types are only available in clinical trials.
- Side effects are generally less severe than those associated with chemotherapy and radiation, but they vary from patient to patient and depend on the specific treatment.
What is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy refers to treatments and medications that stimulate or support the body’s own immune system to fight against a disease. It is also sometimes called biological therapy.
The body’s immune system is made up of white blood cells and the organs and tissues of the lymph system. In the treatment of cancer, the goal of immunotherapy is to harness the power of the immune system to attack and destroy cancer cells.
In the human body the immune system is responsible for attacking foreign and harmful cells like those found in germs and bacteria. The immune system may or may not identify cancer cells as a foreign threat. Sometimes, the immune system struggles to respond to cancer cells because they are biologically similar to other cells found in the body. Other times, cancer cells adapt to prevent the immune cells from attacking them.
Various methods of immunotherapy are used to stimulate the immune system to identify and attack cancer cells. Immunotherapy may be administered to the cancer cells themselves, making them easier for the immune system to identify. Immunotherapy may be used on its own or in combination with other cancer treatment methods.
Types of immunotherapy cancer treatment
The primary types of immunotherapy in use at cCARE are:
- Checkpoint inhibitors
- Adoptive cell therapy
- Immunotherapy treatment vaccines
- Monoclonal antibodies
- Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG).
These treatments are explained below. Depending on the type of treatment, immunotherapy may be administered intravenously (IV) through an injection or vaccine, orally via pill or capsule, topically (for treatment of some cases of melanoma), or directly into the bladder (for treatment of bladder cancer).
Because immunotherapy is a new and rapidly developing field of medicine, some treatments are only available through clinical trials. New immunotherapy cancer treatments are being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) each year as research in the field continues.
Medications can be given that act as the body’s natural checkpoint inhibitors that prevent the immune system from attacking healthy cells – and cancer cells that mimic healthy cells. One of these ways involves special proteins called checkpoint molecules. These molecules are located on immune cells called T-cells.
Checkpoint molecules on T-cells have corresponding “partner molecules” called ligands that are found on normal, healthy cells. When a T-cell encounters another cell with a ligand that matches its checkpoint molecule, it knows not to attack that cell.
It might be helpful to think of the checkpoint molecule on the T-cell as an open lock, and the ligand as a key. When a checkpoint molecule interacts with its matching ligand, the key is turned and the T-cell is “locked” and prevented from attacking.
Cancer cells will sometimes exploit the immune system by producing ligand molecules that prevent T-cells from attacking. Checkpoint inhibitors are medications that work to disable checkpoint protein molecules on T-cells, allowing them to freely attack cancer cells.
Cytokines are protein molecules produced by the body’s immune cells. Two specific types of cytokines, interleukins and interferons, can affect the immune system’s response to certain types of cancers. Cytokines may also prevent or slow the growth of some cancer cells. This type of immunotherapy introduces cytokines into the body in a far greater number than the body would normally produce on its own.
Adoptive cell therapy (ACT)
In ACT, T-cells that are effectively attacking a patient’s cancer are collected from the patient and analyzed in a laboratory. Those T-cells are multiplied and reintroduced to the body via blood transfusion so that the patient has a greater number of T-cells that can successfully fight the cancer cells. In some cases, the T-cells may be genetically modified so they are better equipped to fight a specific cancer type.
Immunotherapy treatment vaccines
Immunotherapy vaccines use a few different methods to boost the body’s immune response to cancer. These are different from preventive vaccines, which are designed to prevent disease. Instead, immunotherapy vaccines aid the body’s fight against an existing disease, sometimes using cells collected from the cancer itself to help the immune system identify the cancer.
Monoclonal antibodies are a type of protein the body produces when it’s fighting a disease. When fighting cancer, the immune system will attach antibodies to cancer cells. This in effect “flags” the cancer cells as harmful, and signals an immune response. Introducing additional monoclonal antibodies in a cancer patient can boost the patient’s immune response to the cancer.
BCG, short for Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, is a special type of immunotherapy for the treatment of bladder cancer. BCG is a modified, weakened form of the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. It is most commonly used in the tuberculosis vaccine that infants receive shortly after birth. When used to treat bladder cancer, BCG is introduced directly to the bladder via catheter. This triggers an immune response that attacks the bacteria cells as well as the bladder cancer cells.
What types of cancer does immunotherapy treat?
Though it is not currently used as often as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, immunotherapy can be used to treat a wide range of cancers. These include melanoma, prostate, lung, kidney, ovarian, Hodgkin lymphoma, colorectal, breast and other cancers. Research in this field is extremely active and rapidly evolving, and immunotherapy treatment has the potential to one day be an effective tool for all types of cancer.
A number of immunotherapy medications are approved by the FDA for the treatment of many types of cancer. Others are currently only administered in clinical trials. A knowledgeable physician and a thorough diagnosis are required to determine whether immunotherapy is an appropriate treatment method for a cancer patient.
Immunotherapy side effects
While immunotherapy can cause unpleasant side effects, it often produces fewer side effects than more invasive treatment types such as chemotherapy and radiation. These side effects also vary depending on the type of immunotherapy received, and the patient’s individual reaction to the treatment. Side effects may include:
- Body aches
- Decreased or increased blood pressure
- Heart palpitations
- Fluid retention and swelling
- Nasal or sinus congestion
- Pain, itchiness or rash at the site of the injection, if treatment was administered intravenously.
More serious complications may result from allergic reactions to immunotherapy treatments, but these reactions are rare.
Schedule an appointment
Speak with one of our oncologists to determine whether or not immunotherapy is right for you. Contact cCARE today to set up an appointment.