10 Immunotherapy Terms: A Science-to-English Translation

illustration of cancer cells

Immunotherapy seems like the biggest deal in cancer these days. After Vice President Biden’s call early this year for a “moonshot initiative” to cure cancer, Johns Hopkins established the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, to which philanthropist Sidney Kimmel and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg each donated $50 million. More recently, former Facebook executive Sean Parker pledged $250 million to create the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

With all this excitement you’d think immunotherapy is a brand new breakthrough. In fact, progress has been evolving for more than a century. And for decades the American Cancer Society has funded researchers in this area, including former Society Faculty Scholar Jeff Bluestone, the new president and CEO of the Parker Institute, and Stephan A. Grupp, MD, PhD, director of the Cancer Immunotherapy Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

While research continues to advance the scientific understanding of immunotherapy, it’s safe to say most people don’t have a basic understanding of what it is or how it works. That’s why we created this cheat sheet of 10 common immunotherapy terms. We start with the most important term of all.

1. Cancer immunotherapy: Treatments that use the immune system to fight cancer. Some boost the immune system in a general way, while others help your body attack cancer cells.

2. Antigen: A part of a cell, such as a protein, that raises a red flag for your immune system.

3. T cells: Immune cells (white blood cells) that roam the body to find and destroy other cells that don’t belong.

4. Cancer cells: Your own cells that start to grow out of control. Sometimes they don’t look different enough to be recognized as “bad guys” by T cells, which is one reason cancer cells survive.

5. Immune checkpoints: Substances that help put the brakes on T cells’ attack mode. Checkpoints normally prevent T cells from accidentally destroying healthy cells, but some cancer cells can use checkpoints to keep T cells in standby mode.

6. Checkpoint inhibitors: When cancer cells use checkpoints to keep T cells in standby mode, these drugs tell T cells to snap out of it and attack.

7. Monoclonal antibodies: Lab-made molecules that are designed lock on to certain defects in cancer cells. One of the ways they can work in cancer immunotherapy is by helping make cancer cells more visible to the immune system.

8. Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy: A promising treatment that uses a patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer. T cells are removed from the patient’s blood, altered in the lab to have “chimeric antigen receptors” (which act like magnets for cancer cells) on their surface, and put back into the body. CAR T cells then seek and destroy cancer cells.

9. Cancer vaccines: Substances put into the body to start an immune response. There is one vaccine approved in the US to treat cancer: Sipuleucel-T (Provenge) for prostate cancer. It’s not a cure, but it can often help men live longer. Other vaccines can help prevent cancer.

10. Cytokines: Chemicals made by some immune cells that boost the immune system in a general way. Man-made versions, such as interleukin-2 (IL-2) and interferon alpha, can be used to treat some cancers.

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