What to know about cancer immunotherapies

Learn about how different types of immunotherapies help the body’s immune system recognize and fight cancer.

Immunotherapies work by helping the body's immune system identify and attack cancer cells, and can be used in tandem with other cancer treatments.

Updated on March 29, 2024.

There are many different types of treatment that are used for cancer, including surgery, radiation (high-dose x-rays), and chemotherapy (drugs that kill cancer cells or decrease their growth). Another treatment option is immunotherapy, the name for drugs that use your own immune system to fight cancer. Immunotherapy can be used by itself or along with other treatments. The treatment options a cancer care team recommends will depend on a number of factors, including the kind of cancer, the stage, and a person’s overall health.

Types of immunotherapies

There are several different categories of immunotherapies, but these therapies generally work in one of two ways. Some work by boosting the immune system so it attacks cancer cells more effectively. Others work by providing the body with extra substances to help the immune system fight cancer.

Here’s a closer look at different types of immunotherapies:

  • Adoptive cell therapy. This treatment involves removing your own immune cells from your body, and either changing those cells or increasing the number of those cells in the lab. These changed cells are then placed back into your body, and are better able to recognize and attack more cancer cells. This approach can be used to treat certain types of leukemia (cancer of the blood), lymphoma (a blood cancer that affects the immune system), and melanoma (a type of skin cancer that is uncommon but causes the majority of deaths from skin cancer). One example is called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy.
  • Cancer vaccines. These vaccines are used as therapies to target cancer cells in certain cancer types—such as cancer of the bladder or prostate (a male reproductive organ that sits below the bladder and makes semen).
  • Checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs block parts of the immune system, which can stimulate immune cells to attack cancer cells. They are currently used to treat more than a dozen types of cancer, including cancers of the cervix (which connects the uterus to the vagina), head and neck cancer, liver cancer, bladder cancer, breast cancer, and lung cancer.
  • Cytokines. These drugs stimulate immune cells to attack cancer using cytokines, which are proteins that carry messages between cells. They can be used for certain types of cancers of the kidney, blood, and skin, and for tumors that form on bones and soft tissues like muscles.
  • Monoclonal antibodies. These versions of immune system proteins are made in a lab and are designed to attack a specific part of a cancer cell. They are used to treat many forms of cancer, including cancer of the breast, brain, lung, and colorectal cancer (a digestive cancer that affects the large intestine and the rectum, the last several inches of the large intestine).
  • Oncolytic virus therapy. This form of treatment uses viruses that have been changed in a lab so that they can infect and destroy cancer cells. So far, only one of these types of therapies is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for metastatic melanoma (a type of skin cancer that has spread to other areas of the body), but clinical trials are being conducted to combine an oncolytic virus and checkpoint inhibitor for people with colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, and appendiceal cancer.

Deciding to use immunotherapy

Cancer is a different experience for everyone, and the best approach to treating cancer depends on many different factors. Immunotherapies offer promising treatment for many people, but they are not right for every type of cancer or every person who has cancer. If you or a loved one is living with cancer, talk to your healthcare team about your treatment options. They can help you determine if immunotherapy should be included in your treatment plan. If you have further questions about immunotherapy and whether your insurance covers this type of treatment, speak with your healthcare provider. You can also ask about financial help to cover costs, and about participating in a clinical trial of immunotherapy.

Article sources open article sources

American Cancer Society. "How Immunotherapy Is Used to Treat Cancer."
Cancer Research Institute. "How Cellular Immunotherapies Are Changing the Outlook for Cancer Patients."
Cancer Research Institute. "Cancer Vaccines: Preventive, Therapeutic, Personalized."
Cancer Research Institute. "Immunomodulators: Checkpoint Inhibitors, Cytokines, Agonists, and Adjuvants."
National Cancer Institute. "Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors."
American Cancer Society. "CAR T-cell Therapy and Its Side Effects."
National Cancer Institute. "CAR T Cells: Engineering Patients’ Immune Cells to Treat Their Cancers."
Mayo Clinic. "Monoclonal antibody drugs for cancer: How they work."
Cancer Research Institute. "How Oncolytic Virus Therapy is Changing Cancer Treatment."
American Cancer Society. "Immunotherapy Safety."
National Cancer Institute. "Immunotherapy Side Effects."

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