Immunotherapy is a category of cancer treatment that works by using the patient’s immune system to fight cancer.
Your immune system is made up of white blood cells, organs, and substances in the body, especially the lymph system, to fight foreign substances that enter the body such as viruses or bacteria. Your immune system is not typically equipped to fight off cancer cells without some additional help.
How Does Immunotherapy Work Against Cancer?
Cancer cells have a design that helps them avoid destruction by the immune system – making it easier for them to multiply.
There are different types of immunotherapy:
- Some immunotherapy treatments help the immune system stop or slow the growth of cancer cells.
- Other immunotherapies boost the immune system to destroy cancer cells.
If immunotherapy is proven to work for your type of cancer, it may be recommended. It can be used alone or combined with other cancer treatments and can be given intravenously or orally.
Specific immunotherapies can mark cancer cells so a person’s immune system can find and destroy them.
Types of Immunotherapy for Cancer
There are many types of immunotherapy are used to treat cancer, including:
- Monoclonal antibodies are human-made immune system proteins designed to bind to specific targets on cancer cells. Some monoclonal antibodies mark cancer cells so that they will be better seen and destroyed by the immune system. Such monoclonal antibodies are a type of immunotherapy. Monoclonal antibodies may also be called therapeutic antibodies.
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that block immune checkpoints. Immune checkpoints are normal and keep your body's immune responses from being too strong. By blocking them, these drugs allow immune cells to respond more strongly to the cancerous cells.
- CAR T-Cell therapy utilizes the patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer. In CAR T-cell therapy, a person’s T-cells are removed with a blood draw and taken to a laboratory. The T-cells are genetically changed to produce a new type of receptor on their surface called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), which will attack cancer cells. These CAR T-cells, which are grown in large numbers, are then injected into the patient.
- Treatment (cancer) vaccines work against cancer by boosting your immune system’s response to specific cancer cells. Cancer treatment vaccines are different from those that help prevent the disease from forming.
- Other non-specific immunotherapies are meant to boost the immune system in a general way, but this can still encourage your immune system to attack cancer cells.
There is extensive clinical research being conducted locally in the Willamette Valley and around the world to determine the most effective immunotherapies for different types of cancer as well as the most effective drug combinations to get the best results.
Immunotherapy Side Effects
Side effects can occur both during and after cancer treatment, and there is no way to predict when or if side effects will happen or how serious they will be. For most the side effects of immunotherapy tend to be less severe than chemotherapy side effects.
Side effects of immunotherapy will vary based on your specific treatment; however, there are some common side effects of all immunotherapies. For example, you might have skin reactions at the needle site that include:
Some side effects of immunotherapy may mimic flu-like symptoms:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Muscle or joint aches
- Trouble breathing
Other common immunotherapy side effects might include:
- Low or high blood pressure
- Swelling and weight gain from retaining fluid
- Heart palpitations
- Sinus congestion
- Risk of infection
- Organ inflammation