Cancer Immunotherapy

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Types of cancer immunotherapy

Many types of cancer treatments can be thought of as immunotherapy.

Some stimulate your own immune system to fight the disease. This can be done either by boosting the immune system in a very general way, or by training the immune system to attack some part of cancer cells specifically.

Other treatments sometimes thought of as immunotherapy use immune system components (such as proteins called antibodies) that are made in the lab. Some of them boost the immune system once they are in the body. Others don’t really affect the immune system much, if at all. Instead, the antibodies themselves target certain proteins that help cancer cells grow. By binding to these proteins, the antibodies stop cancer cells from growing or make them die. These types of antibodies are also known as targeted therapy.

The main types of immunotherapy now being used to treat cancer are discussed in the following sections. They include:

  • Monoclonal antibodies: These are man-made versions of immune system proteins. Antibodies can be very useful in treating cancer because they can be designed to attack a very specific part of a cancer cell.
  • Cancer vaccines: Vaccines are substances put into the body to start an immune response against certain diseases. We usually think of them as being given to healthy people to help prevent infections. But some vaccines can help prevent or treat cancer.
  • Non-specific immunotherapies: These treatments boost the immune system in a general way, but this can still help the immune system attack cancer cells.

Immunotherapy drugs are now used to treat many different types of cancer. If you would like information about immunotherapy as a treatment for a specific cancer, please see our detailed guide for that cancer.

Many newer types of immunotherapy are now being studied for use against cancer. Some of these are discussed in the section “What’s new in immunotherapy research?

Last Medical Review: 03/19/2014
Last Revised: 09/05/2014