Types of immunotherapy
There are many types of cancer treatments that could be thought of as immunotherapy.
Some work by stimulating your body's own immune system to fight the disease. This may be done 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 considered immunotherapy use immune system components (such as proteins called antibodies) that are made in the lab. Some of these 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 specific parts of cancer cells, stopping them from growing or making them die.
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 may help prevent or treat cancer.
- Non-specific immunotherapies: These treatments boost the immune system in a very general way, but this may still result in more activity against cancer cells.
Immunotherapy drugs are now used to treat a number of cancers, including cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, kidney, lung, and prostate, as well as leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and melanoma. If you would like more information about immunotherapy as a treatment for a specific cancer, please see our detailed guide for that cancer.
Many other 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?”
Many types of immunotherapy work by targeting specific parts of cancer cells. As such, they can be thought of as a form of targeted therapy, which differs from less specific treatments like chemotherapy. But there are also other targeted treatments that zero in on parts of cancer cells that are not immunotherapies. For more information on targeted drugs, see our document, Targeted Therapy.
Last Medical Review: 05/09/2012
Last Revised: 02/22/2013