Immunotherapy, also called biological therapy, is a type of treatment that uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer. The therapy mainly consists of stimulating the immune system to help it do its job more effectively. Immunotherapy is a comparatively new type of therapy in the fight against many cancers. Much of this therapy is still in clinical trials.
To help understand the role that biological agents play in cancer treatment, some understanding of how the normal immune system works is helpful.
The immune system is a complex network of cells and organs that work together to defend the body against foreign substances (antigens), such as bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. When the body discovers such a substance, several kinds of cells go into action in what is called an immune response. Below is a description of some of the cells that are part of the immune system:
The immune response is a coordinated effort. All of the immune cells work together, so they need to communicate with each other. They do this by secreting a large number of special protein molecules, called cytokines, which act on other cells. There are many different cytokines. Examples of these are interleukins, interferons, tumor necrosis factors, and colony-stimulating factors. Some immunotherapy treatment strategies involve giving larger amounts of these proteins by an injection or infusion. This is done in the hope of stimulating the cells of the immune system to act more effectively or to make the tumor cells more recognizable to the immune system.
Caution: There are people who promote unproven therapies as immune system boosters. Be careful when evaluating these claims.
The following are types of immunotherapies that are commonly and legitimately used in traditional and scientific medical practice.
Like other forms of cancer treatment, immunotherapies can cause a number of side effects. These side effects can vary widely from patient to patient.
Biologic response modifiers may cause flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, nausea, and loss of appetite. Rashes or swelling may develop at the site where the modifiers are injected. Blood pressure also may be affected, usually with a decrease in pressure. Fatigue is another common side effect of biologic response modifiers.
Side effects of colony-stimulating factors may include bone pain, fatigue, fever, and loss of appetite.
Vaccines can cause muscle aches and low-grade fever. The side effects of monoclonal antibodies vary, and serious allergic reactions may occur.
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