Immunotherapy uses a person’s immune system to fight a particular disease. Flu vaccinations and allergy shots are common examples of immunotherapy. Sometimes called biotherapy or biologic therapy, immunotherapy can also be used to treat certain kinds of cancer. Some of the cancers where it may be effective include:
- Lung cancer
- Certain skin cancers including melanoma
- Bladder cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Head and neck cancers
While immunotherapy is a powerful tool in the fight against cancer, certain cancers and patients cannot be treated effectively with it. Many factors play a role in determining the right treatment approach for a particular scenario. Researchers are just beginning to understand the tremendous potential of immunotherapy as well as its limitations.
What is Cancer Immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy stimulates a person’s own immune system to attack cancer cells more vigorously or with the aid of substances like artificial immune system proteins. In some cases, immunotherapy is used by itself. In others, it works better in combination with other forms of treatment.
The main types of immunotherapy in use today include:
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors. Immune checkpoints keep the immune system from attacking healthy organs. Cancer cells can trick these checkpoints to elicit with the same kind of protection. Checkpoint inhibitors essentially give the immune system the green light to combat cancer cells.
- Monoclonal antibodies. These artificial versions of immune system proteins can be used to prompt the system to attack key areas in cancer cells.
- Cancer vaccines. Vaccines for diseases like the flu use germs that have been weakened or killed to prompt an immune response that prepares the body for future encounters with the illness. Cancer vaccines work in a similar way. They can be used to fight or even prevent certain kinds of cancer.
- Non-specific immunotherapies. Some immunotherapies work in a more general way to help the immune system efficiently attack cancer cells.
Immunotherapy Side Effects
Generally speaking, the side effects of immunotherapy are fewer than those of chemotherapy. But, they can still be significant. Often they involve skin reactions that may look and feel like an allergic reaction. However, serious side effects requiring urgent medical attention can also occur. They include issues with the hormone (endocrine) system and also inflammation of the lungs and gut.
If you or a loved one is battling cancer, your doctor will provide information on whether immunotherapy is appropriate.