What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that assists the body’s immune system to fight cancer.

What is the immune system?

The immune system is made up of a network of cells and organs and is designed to protect the body from threats such as infections, toxins and abnormal cell development. The immune system recognises when a foreign organism, such as a germ, enters the body and attacks it to stop if from harming the body.

Lymphocytes (white blood cells) are a key part of the immune system. There are two main types:

  • B-cells which fight bacteria and viruses.
  • T-cells which help control the immune system and help B-cells make antibodies.

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The immune system usually prevents cancers from developing because of its ability to detect and eliminate abnormal cell growth. Sometimes the body’s natural immune system may not be strong enough to fight the cell growth that causes cancer. Cancer cells may also change over time, which can allow them to escape the immune system.

How does immunotherapy work?

There are different kinds of immunotherapy and they work in different ways. Immunotherapy can boost the immune system to work better against cancer or remove barriers to the immune system attacking the cancer.

When is immunotherapy used? 

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are still the most widely used cancer treatments but checkpoint immunotherapy is likely to benefit some people with some types of cancer.

In Australia immunotherapy has been predominantly used for the following cancers:

  • head and neck
  • bladder
  • kidney
  • melanoma
  • leukaemia
  • lymphoma

How is immunotherapy treatment given?

How often and how long you receive immunotherapy may depend on:

  • the type of immunotherapy
  • the type of cancer
  • how advanced the cancer is
  • how you respond to treatment
  • the side effects you may experience.

Checkpoint inhibitors are usually given with an injection into a vein (intraveneously).

When immunotherapy is used to treat some melanoma cases, a cream called imiquimond may be applied directly to the affected area.

Sometimes more than one type of immunotherapy drug is prescribed. Immunotherapy drugs appear to keep working for varying periods of time, and in some cases, can keep working long after other treatments are no longer used.

Information courtesy of Cancer Council Australia –