It works by harnessing the immune system recognise and attack cancer cells. It is normally given via an IV drip.
Some types of immunotherapy are also called targeted treatments or biological therapies.
One might have immunotherapy on its own or with other cancer treatments.
The immune system works to protect the body against infection, illness and disease. It can also protect from the development of cancer.
The immune system includes the lymph glands, spleen and white blood cells.
Normally, it can spot and destroy faulty cells in the body, stopping cancer developing. But a cancer might develop when:
- the immune system recognises cancer cells but it is not strong enough to kill the cancer cells
- the cancer cells produce signals that stop the immune system from attacking it
- the cancer cells hide or escape from the immune system
Types of immunotherapy
Cancer treatments do not always fit easily into a certain type of treatment.
This is because some drugs or treatments work in more than one way and belong to more than one group.
For example, a type of immunotherapy called checkpoint inhibitors are also described as a monoclonal antibody or targeted treatment.
CAR T-cell therapy
This treatment changes the genes in a person’s white blood cells (T cells) to help them recognise and kill cancer cells.
Changing the T cell in this way is called genetically engineering the T cell.
It is available as a possible treatment for some children with leukaemia and some adults with lymphoma.
People with other types of cancer might have it as part of a clinical trial.
Monoclonal antibodies (MABs)
MABs recognise and attach to specific proteins on the surface of cancer cells.
Antibodies are found naturally in our blood and help us to fight infection. MAB therapies mimic natural antibodies, but are made in a laboratory.
Monoclonal means all one type. So each MAB therapy is a lot of copies of one type of antibody.
MABs work as an immunotherapy in different ways. They might do one of the following:
- trigger the immune system
- help the immune system to attack cancer
MABs trigger the immune system by attaching themselves to proteins on cancer cells.
This makes it easier for the cells of the immune system to find and attack the cancer cells.
This process is called antibody dependent cell mediated cytotoxicity (ADCC).
Checkpoint inhibitors are MABs that work by helping the immune system attack cancer cells.
Cancer can sometimes push a stop button on the immune cells, so the immune system won’t attack them.
Checkpoint inhibitors block cancers from pushing the stop button.
Cytokines are a group of proteins in the body that play an important part in boosting the immune system.
Interferon and interleukin are types of cytokines found in the body. Scientists have developed man made versions of these to treat some types of cancer.