Your immune system fights infections and diseases in your body. Immunotherapy is a kind of biological therapy or treatment that uses your immune system to fight cancer.
Immunotherapy is still relatively new which makes its success a bit hard to predict. It’s also focused on some of the more common cancers.
General Immunotherapy FAQ
Immunotherapy as cancer treatment
The immune system is what finds and destroys abnormal cells, oftentimes responsible for preventing cancer or stopping its growth.
One such example are tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, or TILs, which are immune cells that are sometimes found in or near tumors. If patients have tumors with TILs, they tend to have better results than those who don’t.
Immunotherapy as a cancer therapy helps use the immune system to target and destroy cancer cells.
There are a few main kinds of immunotherapy used as cancer treatment, including:
- T-cell transfer therapy
This kind of treatment increases the ability of T cells to act against cancer. The process requires immune cells to be taken from the patient. Those cells are studied in a lab where the most active immune cells are chosen, grown, and then sent back to be put into the patient through an IV. CAR T-Cell therapy is one of the most well-known.
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors
These drugs block immune checkpoints, which are a part of the immune system. The immune checkpoints ensure immune responses are within normal range. By blocking these checkpoints, the immune cells are able to react more strongly to cancer cells.
- Immune system modulators
These modulators increase the immune system’s response to and against cancer. Some of them target specific areas of the immune system, some more generally.
- Monoclonal antibodies
These antibodies are lab-created proteins that are formulated to bind to cancer cells. These are also referred to as therapeutic antibodies.
- Treatment vaccines
This is not the same type of vaccine used to prevent diseases. This is a type of immunotherapy that acts against cancer by increasing the immune system response to cancer.
Common cancers treated with immunotherapy
Immunotherapy side effects
As with all cancer treatments, the side effects vary depending on the patient. No two people will track exactly the same. Factors that may contribute to what side effects a patient feels include:
- State of health before treatment
- Cancer type
- Cancer stage
- Immunotherapy type
There are some side effects that are more commonly experienced, regardless of the immunotherapy type:
- Skin reaction at needle site
- May include pain, soreness, swelling, itchiness, rash, and redness
- Flu-like symptoms
- May include chills, fever, headache, problems breathing, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, muscle/joint aches, fatigue, weakness, low/high blood pressure
- Sinus congestion
- Swelling, weight gain (as a result of fluid retention)
- Heart palpitations
- Higher risk of infection
There are side effects more associated with type of immunotherapy. For a more comprehensive list, visit the National Cancer Institute page on immunotherapy side effects.
Ways immunotherapy is given
- Intravenous (IV)
The immunotherapy goes directly into a vein.
The immunotherapy comes in pills or capsules that you swallow.
The immunotherapy comes in a cream that you rub onto your skin. This type of immunotherapy can be used for very early skin cancer.
The immunotherapy goes directly into the bladder.
Immunotherapy Stories and Experiences
Car T-Cell Therapy
Dr. Jacqueline Barrientos, M.D.
Role: Hematologist, researcher
Focus: Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), lymphoma, 17p Deletion (Ibrutinib, Acalabrutinib, Venetoclax), IgHV mutation
Provider: Northwell Health (NYC)
Dr. Rafael Fonseca, M.D.
Role: Consultant, Division of Hematology/Oncology; Dept. Chair, Internal Medicine; professor of medicine
Focus: Myeloma; defining sub-type distinctions | Clinical Trials, Selinexor, Darzalex
Provider: Mayo Clinic
Dr. Tim Fenske, Leukemia & Lymphoma Specialist
Oncologist: Specializing in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) & other leukemia and lymphoma | CAR T, Acalabrutinib, Ibrutinib, Idelalisib, Venetoclax
Experience: ~15 years
Hospital/clinic size: Mid-sized institution
Shahzad Bhat's CAR T Story
Cancer details: Refractory non-Hodgkin lymphoma, stage 4
1st Symptoms: Extreme fatigue
Treatment: R&B, R-ICE, R-EPOCH, CAR T-cell therapy (cell-based gene therapy)
FDA approved: October 2017
Sonia Su, Primary Mediastinal (PMBCL), Relapse, CAR T-Cell Therapy
1st Symptoms: Chest pain, superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS); persistent, dry coughs, headaches
Treatment: (1st Line) R-CHOP chemotherapy, 6 cycles (2nd Line) R-ICE Chemotherapy (3rd Line) CAR T-cell therapy