Immunotherapy, a type of biological therapy, is a cancer treatment designed to boost or restore immune function to fight cancer. The immune system helps your body fight infections and other diseases. It is made up of white blood cells and organs and tissues of the lymph system.
One reason that cancer cells thrive is because they are able to hide from your immune system. Certain immunotherapies can mark cancer cells so it is easier for the immune system to find and destroy them. Other immunotherapies boost your immune system to work better against cancer. Through the use of natural and/or synthetic substances, immunotherapy stimulates white blood cells (T cells) in several ways, allowing them to recognize and kill cancer cells.
There are different approaches to cancer immunotherapy, some of which include:
- Monoclonal antibodies - which are drugs that are designed to bind to specific targets in the body. They can cause an immune response that destroys cancer cells.
- Adoptive cell transfer - which is a treatment that attempts to boost the natural ability of your T cells to fight cancer. Researchers take T cells from the tumor. They then isolate the T cells that are most active against your cancer or modify the genes in them to make them better able to find and destroy your cancer cells.
- Checkpoint inhibitors - which us when certain proteins, called immune checkpoint proteins, are blocked to limit the strenght and duration of immune responses. Blocking the activity of immune checkpoint proteins releases the "brakes" on the immune system, increasing its ability to destroy cancer cells.
- Cytokines - which are proteins that are made by your body’s cells. They play important roles in the body’s normal immune responses and also in the immune system’s ability to respond to cancer. The two main types of cytokines used to treat cancer are called interferons and interleukins.
- Therapeutic vaccines - which work against cancer by boosting your immune system’s response to cancer cells. Therapeutic or treatment vaccines are different from the ones that help prevent disease.
Although the use of immunotherapy is not as widespread as other traditional cancer treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, it is a very active area of cancer research.