Immunotherapy: Medical achievement in the history of cancer

Immunotherapy: Medical achievement in the history of cancer

Your body has a very special system made up of complex network of immune cells (eg. white blood cells), tissues and organs which fights against infections. This immune system works to protect the body against illness, destroys unwanted/ faulty cells and foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria entering your body.

Sometimes, the immune system is not able to recognize abnormal cells from healthy cells. These abnormal cells continue to mutate, divide and evade the immune system, leading to uncontrolled growth and eventually cancer. To trigger the body’s immune system against these abnormal cells, immunotherapy is developed.

Immunotherapy is advanced and advertised as a ‘miracle drug’ in the area of cancer treatment. You may have several questions and concerns about immunotherapy. So let’s discuss immunotherapy in detail and how it enhances and aids the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a broad category of cancer therapy which uses the immune system ability to prevent and fight against cancer causing cells. It is a growing area of immuno-oncology that has transformed the life of cancer patients.

Immunotherapy drugs help to:

  • Alert the immune system against abnormal or mutated cells.
  • Boosts the body’s natural defenses to recognise and attack cancer cells.
  • Provide additional components such as cytokines to increase immune responses of the body.

Clinical trials have also indicated that immunotherapy has brought significant improvements in patients survival and quality of life, when compared to other types of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery.

What are the types of immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy treatments does not fall in one category and thus can be divided into several types such as:

Immune checkpoint inhibitors which block immune checkpoints responsible for strong immune responses. It includes drugs such as pembrolizumab, ipilimumab, nivolumab and atezolizumab.

Chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy (CAR- T cell therapy) which boosts the ability of T lymphocytes to fight and attack cancer cells. It includesTisagenlecleucel, Axicabtagene ciloleucel, and Brexucabtagene autoleucel.

Monoclonal antibodies which help to mark abnormal cancer cells to be easily recognised by the immune system. These monoclonal antibodies are also considered as targeted therapy. It includes abciximab, adalimumab, alemtuzumab, canakinumab, denosumab, ipilimumab, nivolumab and rituximab.

Treatment or Cancer vaccines which enhance the body’s natural defenses and immune system’s response to cancer cells. It includes BCG, Sipuleucel-T and Talimogene laherparepvec.

Immune system modulators which affect various components of the immune system to speed up immune responses. It includes calcineurin inhibitors, antimetabolites, and alkylating agents.

Non-specific immunotherapies which supply various additional proteins such as interferons, cytokines and interleukins to target cancer cells.

Which cancers can be treated with immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is not limited to a single type of cancer and can treat a variety of cancer with better efficacy, safety and tolerability. Some of these cancers are as follow:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Brain tumor
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Cervical and ovarian cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Lymphoma

How can one receive immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy can be administered in various ways such as orally in the form of pills or capsules, intravenously through injection, or topically on the skin. It is either administered as monotherapy or in combination with various other treatments such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy or surgery.

Every patient doesn’t receive the same type of immunotherapy and its type is dependent on the type of cancer, stage of cancer and other cancer treatment you have received. The treatment plan, course, schedule and protocol of immunotherapy is dependent on the specific condition of the patient and how the body responds to treatment. The time of immunotherapy may vary from days, weeks and months. Every cycle of treatment is followed by the period of rest and recovery.


Immunotherapy holds significant potential and is successful in treating a wide variety of cancer. It is associated with significant response rates but can doesn’t work well in all patients. Certain types of immunotherapies are associated with some side effects such as skin reactions, fatigue, nausea, insomnia, vomiting, dizziness, headache, cough and diarrhea.

It is advised to keep a check on the various side effects of therapy while receiving immunotherapy. If there are any side effects, be sure to talk to your health care provider regarding side effects and how to manage them.

Also, Explore some myths and facts about chemotherapy.

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