Immunotherapy is treatment that augments, retrains, or retargets the immune system to fight cancer. Your immune system consists of white blood cells, also called leukocytes, which help protect your body against infections and diseases. A variety of leukocytes—including T-cells, B-cells, NK-cells, dendritic cells, monocytes, macrophages, neutrophils, and others—are important in cancer control. The goal of immunotherapy is to train these cells to attack cancer.
Definition of treatment
Immunotherapy can include therapeutic antibodies, vaccines, small molecule drugs, cytokines, or cellular therapy. They all help your immune system fight cancer by stopping or slowing cancer cell growth, destroying cancer cells, and keeping cancer from metastasizing, or spreading, to other parts of your body.
There are several general types of immunotherapy that are used alone or in combination:
- Cancer vaccines help the body to recognize cancer cells and then stimulate the immune system to attack the tumor. Some cancer vaccines are injections. Others require us to collect blood, enrich it with cells, and then re-infuse it with an IV.
- Cytokines such as interferons and interleukins are groups of proteins that are produced by white blood cells and help to stimulate the immune system’s reaction to cancer. Interleukins are proteins that increase growth and activity in the body's immune cells. Interleukin-2 (IL-2) is an FDA-approved anti-cancer treatment.
- Colony stimulating factors (CSF) work in the bone marrow, where red and white blood cells and platelets are produced, to create more immune system and blood cells.
- Monoclonal antibodies are made when two different types of cells are fused together. They are designed to attack antigens, which are responsible for identifying foreign cells, such as cancer cells, and initiating an immune response.
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors (CTLA-4, PD-1, PD-L1, etc.) are antibodies that "release the brake" from immune cells, allowing them to recognize a tumor and unleash white blood cells to attack it.
- Cellular therapy (CAR T-cells, recombinant TCRs) involves methods to retarget your immune cells to specific proteins on a particular cancer.
UC San Diego Health System expertise
Physician-scientists at UC San Diego Health System are actively using immunotherapy to treat all cancers, including lung cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, neuroblastoma, melanoma, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia. Our researchers are also studying drugs that activate the immune system to help patients with refractory cancers.
Will immunotherapy be my only treatment?
Possibly, but it will depend upon your type of cancer and your doctor’s recommendations. Often immunotherapy is done along with chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Where will I receive immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy can be given via pills, subcutaneous injections, or intravenous infusions. Injections or infusions require a clinic visit.
How often will I receive immunotherapy?
Treatment schedules vary and will depend upon your type of cancer, your doctor’s recommendations, and the specific clinical study. Some treatments are once a day; others are once a week or once a month.
What are possible side effects of immunotherapy?
- Rash or swelling near injection site
- Flu-like symptoms
- Lowered blood pressure
For further information, discuss side effects with your physician.