When people think about cancer treatment the first thing that comes to mind is chemotherapy. It’s still the most common approach for dealing with cancer but it isn’t the only treatment available.

Here we take a closer look at cancer immunotherapy treatment, what it is and how effective it can be for a range of conditions.

What is Cancer Immunotherapy?

In simple terms, cancer immunotherapy ‘teaches’ the immune system to attack cancer cells and destroy them. In the last few years, several approaches have been approved for treatment in the USA as well as other parts of the world.

The key with cancer immunotherapy is that it can be more directly targeted at specific cells. Chemotherapy, while effective for many types of cancer, has numerous harsh side-effects. 

Cancer immunotherapy can either be used as a standalone treatment or in conjunction with other treatments.

What is the relationship between immunotherapy and the immune system?

The immune system is a natural mechanism that our body uses to fight infection. It consists of a complex combination of proteins and cells that activate once the body is ‘invaded’. When you catch a cold, for example, your immune system kicks into life and produces responses such as antibodies which fight the infection.

Cancer immunotherapy vaccines

The essential component of immunotherapy is introducing natural biological elements and using approaches that help fight cancer. The modern-day oncologist has several weapons in their armoury, including:

  • Cancer vaccines
  • Antibodies
  • Adoptive cell transfer
  • Checkpoint inhibitors
  • Cytokines
  • Adjuvants

Cytokines, for example, have been shown to play a key role in boosting the immune system. Adjuvants, on the other hand, activate vital immune system pathways. Current research in this area is looking at developing a range of tools that can be adapted to many different cancers.

Cancer Immunotherapy Benefits

The huge benefit of cancer immunotherapy treatment is that it can be better targeted than some traditional approaches such as chemotherapy.

The immune system is also responsive. This means that if the cancer changes, the immune response can change or adapt. The system can ‘remember’ infections which one reason why you get immunity after you have had a nasty cold or flu.

How Effective is Cancer Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is suitable for a range of different cancers and our knowledge in this area is developing all the time. Here are just some of the treatments that have been approved in the USA:

  • Bevacizumab is a monoclonal antibody that helps inhibit the growth of brain tumor blood vessels.
  • Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) is a vaccine used to stimulate the immune system and has proved successful in helping treat bladder cancer.
  • Atezolizumab is a checkpoint inhibitor that has been shown effective in the treatment of breast cancer. A checkpoint inhibitor helps regulate the immune response.
  • Necitumumab is another antibody that has been used to help combat non-small cell lung cancer.

There is now an extensive list of cancers where immunotherapy is a beneficial option. In many cases the long term effects of this kind of treatment are highly positive with studies showing longer-lasting remissions than with other approaches such as chemotherapy.

You can find a full list of cancers that are currently being treated with immunotherapy here.

Things to consider

In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration has approved more than 50 different cancer immunotherapy treatments.

If immunotherapy is to be used, a lot will depend on what type of cancer you have, the prognosis and the stage of development.

  • While it is generally considered as less invasive than chemotherapy, there are side-effects when using cancer immunotherapy. These can include nausea and fatigue as well as headaches and blood pressure issues.
  • Cancer immunotherapies can take longer to produce signs of tumor shrinkage and it’s not unusual for tumors to appear to grow before beginning to decrease in size.

Immunotherapy may also be used in conjunction with another treatment such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. That’s because it works better with some kinds of cancer than others. An oncologist will assess whether cancer immunotherapy treatment is a suitable option and discuss this with the individual.