Immunotherapy is a breakthrough cancer treatment that harnesses your own body’s immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells. When doctors talk about immunotherapy as a cancer treatment, they are actually referring to different kinds treatments that fall under the umbrella of immunotherapy, such as antibodies, vaccines, cytokines, and checkpoint inhibitors. Each immunotherapy treatment affects the immune system differently, and each immunotherapy option is FDA-approved to treat only certain kinds of cancer.
Antibodies have been successful for patients with breast cancer and non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. In this immunotherapy treatment, researchers create an antibody that specifically targets cancer-causing molecules in the body.
Another form of immunotherapy, vaccines are used to treat prostate cancer. These immunotherapy vaccines strengthen the body’s immune system so it is better able to respond to cancer.
Cytokines have been used to treat kidney cancer and melanoma. Cytokines are proteins produced by white blood cells, and they can aid in slowing the growth of cancer cells or even killing off cancer cells entirely. These are used less frequently since the emergence of checkpoint inhibitors, the newest class of immunotherapy treatment, which may work better for some patients.
Checkpoint inhibitors are FDA-approved to treat melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, and non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. Checkpoint inhibitors help signal to the immune system which cells in the body to attack—and which to leave alone. This is important because cancer cells tend to find ways to evade the immune system, and checkpoint inhibitors counteract this.
Currently, researchers are testing whether immunotherapy can effectively treat even more types of cancer. Clinical trials for immunotherapy are being run for breast cancer, head and neck cancer, colorectal cancer, gastric cancer, and lymphomas.
Typically doctors use immunotherapy to treat metastatic cancer, which is when the cancer has already spread to other areas of the body. But doctors and researchers are researching how to use immunotherapy in earlier stages of cancer to help prevent cancer from returning in the first place.