What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy, also commonly referred to as biologic therapy, is a cancer treatment that uses a person’s immune system to fight cancerous cells. This treatment takes substances made by the body or in a lab setting to restore system function. Immunotherapy can work in a variety of ways including:

  • Slows or stops the growth of cancerous cells
  • Stops the cancer from spreading throughout the body
  • Stimulates the body’s immune system to work harder to destroy cancerous cells

Immunotherapy is more effective in some cancers than others. In cancers where it is most effective, it can be used as stand-alone therapy. In other cancers, it may be used in combination with other treatment options.

What are types of immunotherapy?

  • Monoclonal antibodies  — monoclonal antibodies are man-made immune system proteins that can attach to proteins on cancer cells - thus flagging the cells so the immune system can destroy the cancerous cells.
  • Non-specific immunotherapies — Interferons and Interleukins are types of non-specific immunotherapies that work to destroy cancerous cells
  • Oncolytic virus therapy — kills cancer cells using genetically modified viruses
  • T-cell therapy — T-cells are immune cells that work to fight infection. During T-cell therapy, T-cells are removed from your blood, genetically changed, replicated in the lab and returned to your body. Once back in your body, they seek and eliminate cancer cells.
  • Cancer vaccines — cancer vaccines such as the HPV vaccine and the Hepatitis B vaccine help the body fight off cancer by exposing your body to an antigen. The antigen triggers an immune response to destroy the antigen. Vaccines can prevent or treat cancer.

What are the side effects of immunotherapy?

Skin reactions and flu-like symptoms are the most common side effects of immunotherapy. Skin reactions could range from redness, dryness and blistering to sensitivity to sunlight or inflammation around the nails.

Flu-like symptoms associated with immunotherapy could include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Body aches
  • High or low blood pressure

Other side effects associated with immunotherapy treatment include:

  • Achy muscles
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Edema
  • Diarrhea
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain

Who is a candidate for immunotherapy?

There are many immunotherapy indications approved by the FDA for treatment of multiple different tumor types including:

  • Melanoma
  • Non-small-cell lung cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Head and neck cancers
  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Your Mercy Health cancer care team will evaluate your case to determine the most effective treatment plan for you.

Results from immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is an evolving science. Early results show promise in curing cancer, but research continues to find new and better ways to use immunotherapy.

In fact, researchers are studying vaccines for the following cancer types (not inclusive list):

  • Brain tumor
  • Breast cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Melanoma
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Prostate cancer

Find a cancer specialist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you