Immunotherapy for cancer

Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy or biotherapy, is treatment that uses the body's own immune system to treat an illness. The immune system can be boosted, directed, or restored by different kinds of immunotherapy.

There are several types of immunotherapy used to treat cancer, such as biologics and vaccines:

  • Biologics are medicines based on natural proteins. These medicines include:
    • Cytokines. These are proteins made by the immune system to help cells communicate. Examples include interferons and interleukins, which kill cancer cells to slow the spread of disease or activate (wake up) the immune system to fight the disease.
    • Monoclonal antibodies. This type of medicine finds a certain protein on the surface of some cells and locks onto it (like a key in a lock). This may then trigger the body's immune system to attack and destroy those cells. Monoclonal antibodies are used to treat cancers such as lymphoma.
  • Vaccines help the body's immune system find and attack cancer cells. They may be used to treat people who already have cancer, such as with bladder cancer or prostate cancer. Or they may be used to protect people from getting some forms of cancer. Examples include the following:
    • Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which protects against two types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
    • Bacillus Calmette-Guerin, or BCG. This vaccine against tuberculosis is useful for treating primary bladder cancer. When BCG is infused into the bladder, the body's immune system responds by attacking the cancer cells.

Last Updated: December 5, 2008

Author: Bets Davis, MFA

Medical Review: Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Alexander H. Murray, MD, FRCPC - Dermatology

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