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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.

  • 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.
      • Colony-stimulating factors (granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factors, or GM-CSF), which cause the bone marrow to make more immune system cells and blood cells.
    • 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.
  • Gene therapy is a way to treat or prevent disease caused by abnormal genes. This can be done in several ways, such as by inserting a normal gene to replace a gene that isn't working. Sometimes an abnormal gene can be repaired. Or changes can be made to the gene so it doesn't continue to cause problems.
  • 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.
    • Sipuleucel-T (Provenge). This vaccine is used for advanced prostate cancer. A man's own cells are treated in a lab and given back to him to help his immune system fight the cancer.
ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerAmy McMichael, MD - Dermatology
Last RevisedOctober 12, 2012

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