Sarah Cannon - September 21, 2015

In the last few years, the immunotherapies used in clinical trials have demonstrated success for the treatment of certain cancers. If your oncologist has recommended immunotherapy as part of your cancer treatment plan, you may be wondering what it is and how it works. Here are answers to some of the common questions about this type of treatment.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy that uses targeted drugs to convince the body's immune system to recognize that there is something foreign in the body (cancer) and to attack the cells threatening it. [i][ii][iii]

How does immunotherapy work?

Some forms of immunotherapy are immune system 'boosters," helping your body attack the cancer cells. Other types are designed to go after the proteins that help cancer cells grow, thereby slowing or stopping the process.

Additionally, some types of immunotherapy work alone to combat cancer cells, while others are used in combination with another treatment to strengthen the immune system's response or to help improve the impact of the primary therapy. [iv]

What are the types of immunotherapies?

There are four categories of immunotherapy, and each one works in a different way. [v]

  • Immune Checkpoint Modulators target 'checkpoint proteins" that help the tumor hide from the immune system. This therapy works to 'unmask" the tumor and therefore, enables the immune system to destroy the cancer cells.
  • Adoptive Cell Transfer (ACT) is an immune cell therapy that uses cytotoxic T-cells (cells that have shown anti-tumor activity) already in the body. These powerful T-cells are harvested to help produce more healthy T-cells. After being activated with cytokines chemical messengers released by the cells this cell 'army" is infused back in the body to fight the cancer cells. Another type of ACT is called CAR T-cell therapy and involves genetically modifying the T-cells. Once inserted into the body, these T-cells attach to specific proteins on the cancer cells to attack the cancer.
  • Cancer Treatment Vaccines , made from either a patient's tumor cells or from substances taken from tumor cells, these vaccines strengthen the body's natural defense system. The vaccine may 1) delay or stop cancer cell growth, 2) cause tumor shrinkage, 3) prevent cancer from coming back or 4) attack cancer cells that haven't responded to other forms of treatment.
  • Immune-modifying Agents , such as cytokines, antibodies and growth factors, enhance the body's immune response against cancer.

What are the latest developments?

Clinical trials are an integral part of finding new ways to harness the body's ability to inhibit cancer development and growth. Sarah Cannon has a number of clinical trials for these modern immunotherapies and has been involved in the research for new immunotherapy drugs approved for the treatment of melanoma and lung cancer, including KEYTRUDA (pembrolizumab), OPDIVO (nivolumab) and YERVOY (ipilimumab). Learn more about the latest approvals by the FDA .


[i] National Cancer Institute Dictionary
[ii] American Cancer Society
[iii] American Cancer Society
[iv] National Cancer Institute
[v] National Cancer Institute
[vi] American Cancer Society
[vii] Cancer Research Institute