Reviewed by: Ezra Cohen, M.D.
UC San Diego Health
What is immunotherapy? Cancer immunotherapy, also known as immuno-oncology, is a form of cancer treatment that uses the power of the body’s own immune system to prevent, control, and eliminate cancer.
- Educate the immune system to recognize and attack specific cancer cells
- Boost immune cells to help them eliminate cancer
- Provide the body with additional components to enhance the immune response
Cancer immunotherapy comes in a variety of forms, including targeted antibodies, cancer vaccines, adoptive cell transfer, tumor-infecting viruses, checkpoint inhibitors, cytokines, and adjuvants. Immunotherapies are a form of biotherapy (also called biologic therapy or biological response modifier (BRM) therapy) because they use materials from living organisms to fight disease. Some immunotherapy treatments use genetic engineering to enhance immune cells’ cancer-fighting capabilities and may be referred to as gene therapies. Many immunotherapy treatments for preventing, managing, or treating different cancers can also be used in combination with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or targeted therapies to improve their effectiveness.
Unleashing the power of the immune system is a smart way to fight cancer:
- The immune system is precise, so it is possible for it to target cancer cells exclusively while sparing healthy cells.
- The immune system can adapt continuously and dynamically, just like cancer does, so if a tumor manages to escape detection, the immune system can re-evaluate and launch a new attack.
- The immune system’s “memory” allows it to remember what cancer cells look like, so it can target and eliminate the cancer if it returns.
Immunotherapies have been approved in the United States and elsewhere to treat a variety of cancers and are prescribed to patients by oncologists. These approvals are the result of years of research and testing designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of these treatments. Immunotherapies are also available through clinical trials, which are carefully controlled and monitored studies involving patient volunteers.
Immunotherapy doesn’t always work for every patient, and certain types of immunotherapy are associated with potentially severe but manageable side effects. Scientists are developing ways to determine which patients are likely to respond to treatment and which aren’t. This research is leading to new strategies to expand the number of patients who may potentially benefit from treatment with immunotherapy.
Although scientists haven’t yet mastered all the immune system’s cancer-fighting capabilities, immunotherapy is already helping to extend and save the lives of many cancer patients. Immunotherapy holds the potential to become more precise, more personalized, and more effective than current cancer treatments—and potentially with fewer side effects. Learn more about how you can support new breakthroughs in cancer immunotherapy research.