Immunotherapy is a type of cancer drug treatment that focuses on using the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

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How immunotherapy works

Different types of immunotherapy work in several different ways. Immunotherapy can:

  • boost the immune system so it works better against cancer
  • remove barriers to the immune system attacking the cancer.

About the immune system

The immune system protects the body from infections. It’s made up of a network of cells and organs including the tonsils, lymph nodes, appendix, thymus, spleen and bone marrow. When a foreign organism such as a germ enters the body, the immune system recognises and then attacks it, so that it doesn’t harm the body. This process is called an immune response.

White blood cells called lymphocytes are part of the immune system. They are produced in the bone marrow. There are two main types of lymphocytes:

  • B-cells – fight bacteria and viruses by making proteins called antibodies. The antibody locks onto the surface of the invading bacteria or virus.
  • T-cells – help control the immune system, assist B-cells to make antibodies, and may attack abnormal cells.

Cancer and the immune system

The immune system’s ability to detect and destroy abnormal cells usually prevents cancers from developing. However, some cancer cells find ways to stop the immune system destroying them. The natural immune response to cancer cells may not be strong enough to fight them off. Also, cancer cells can change over time (mutate) and then escape from the immune response.

Organs of the immune system

The main organs of the immune system and their functions are shown below.

organs of the immune system

How immunotherapy is given

Checkpoint immunotherapy is usually given directly into a vein (intravenously).

How often and how long you have immunotherapy depends on:

  • the type of cancer and how advanced it is
  • the type of immunotherapy you get
  • how you respond to treatment and the side effects, if any, you experience from treatment.

Sometimes two immunotherapy drugs are given together. You may have treatment every 2–3 weeks in a repeating cycle, with each period of treatment followed by a rest period.

Immunotherapy drugs seem to keep working for varying periods of time, because they act directly on the body’s own immune system. They sometimes keep working even long after treatment stops.

Who may benefit from immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is not yet as widely used as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. However, checkpoint immunotherapy is likely to benefit some people with some types of cancer.

In Australia, it has been used in clinical trials for cancers in the head and neck, bladder, kidney, lung, as well as melanoma, leukaemia and lymphoma. Immunotherapy is being studied for use in many other types of cancer.

To date, most people who’ve had immunotherapy have had advanced cancer. Their cancer has either recurred and spread after primary treatment, or they were first diagnosed at an advanced stage.

Immunotherapy is not right for everyone, so talk to your doctor to find out whether you may benefit from this treatment. Most studies show that immunotherapy is more likely to work for people who have few, if any symptoms from their cancer.

To work out if immunotherapy is suitable, doctors will consider:

  • your overall health
  • the type and stage of cancer
  • your treatment history.

How do you access immunotherapy treatment?

Ask your doctor if immunotherapy is a suitable treatment for you. Only checkpoint immunotherapy for advanced melanoma is currently approved and reimbursed through the PBS in Australia. Immunotherapy for advanced kidney cancer and lung cancer is approved, and will probably be reimbursed in the near future.

For other cancers, it may be possible to access immunotherapy treatments through clinical trials. Speak with your treatment team for more information, and ask if you’re able to join a clinical trial. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or see Clinical trials and research.

This information was last reviewed in June 2017
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