Types of immunotherapy

Immunotherapy can trigger the immune system to fight cancer in different ways.

Learn more about:

Listen to our podcast on New Cancer Treatments – Immunotherapy and Targeted Therapy

How checkpoint immunotherapy works

The drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors are the most widely used form of immunotherapy for cancer. They work by helping the immune system to recognise and attack the cancer.

 T-cells and checkpoint inhibitors

What T-cells usually do

The immune system’s T-cells circulate throughout the body looking for abnormal cells to destroy. The T-cells carry proteins known as “checkpoints”.

What checkpoints usually do

Checkpoints act as natural brakes to stop T-cells destroying healthy cells.

How some cancer cells use checkpoints

In some people, the cancer cells use these checkpoints to stop T-cells recognising the cancer cells as abnormal.

What checkpoint inhibitors do

Checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that block these checkpoints so that the T-cells can once again recognise and destroy the cancer. This is like taking the brakes off the immune system.

Learn more about having checkpoint immunotherapy as part of your cancer treatment, and some of the side effects that you may experience.

Other types of immunotherapy

There are other types of immunotherapy. A few are available now as approved treatment for cancer, but most are still being tested in clinical trials and may be more widely available in future.

Immune stimulants

Some treatments are used to stimulate the immune system to attack the cancer. These are known as immune stimulants.

In non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer, the vaccine Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) may be used as an immune stimulant. It is given into the bladder through a catheter. The BCG stimulates the immune system to stop or delay bladder cancer coming back or becoming invasive.

In some types of skin cancers, a cream called imiquimod is applied directly to the affected area to stimulate a local immune response.

Adoptive cell transfer

This experimental type of immunotherapy is used to boost the ability of T-cells to fight cancer. Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a type of adoptive cell transfer that is being tested in Australian clinical trials. It is showing good results for some types of leukaemia and lymphoma.

In CAR T-cell therapy, the T-cells are removed from the blood, and a new gene is introduced into the T-cells to enable them to recognise cancer cells. The T-cells are then returned to the blood by an intravenous drip (infusion). The altered T-cells multiply and trigger a number of immune responses that attack the cancer cells.

Oncolytic viruses

These viruses directly infect tumour cells and cause an immune response against the infected cells. An oncolytic virus therapy known as talimogene laherparepvec or T-VEC (brand name Imlygic) is sometimes used for melanoma. It is injected directly into the melanoma both to kill the melanoma cells and to stimulate the immune system to attack melanoma cells.

Oncolytic virus therapies for brain cancer and some other types of cancer are being tested in clinical trials, but the research is still in its early stages.

How vaccines help prevent cancer

Vaccines help train the immune system to prevent some types of cancer. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is used to prevent cervical cancer, and it is hoped it will also prevent anal and penile cancers and some cancers of the head and neck. Vaccines against hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses help prevent liver cancer.

Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on Immunotherapy.

Printed copies are available for free - Call 13 11 20 to order

Instructions for downloading and reading EPUB files

Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
  • open EPUB files directly from Mobile Safari and open them in iBooks, where they are saved automatically by downloading the EPUB from the website.

Need more help? Visit: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4059


To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
Need more information? Visit: http://www.kobo.com/help/koboaura/response/?id=3784&type=3

Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

Need more help? Visit: https://au.readerstore.sony.com/apps_and_devices/

Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=help_search_1-1?ie=UTF8&nodeId=200767340&qid=1395967989&sr=1-1
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit www.amazon.com/manageyourkindle, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
Need more help? Visit https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200375630

Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

This information was last reviewed in July 2019
View who reviewed this content
View our editorial policy

Support services

Coping with cancer?
Ask a health professional or someone who’s been there, or find a support group or forum

Need legal and financial assistance?
Pro bono legal and financial matters, no interest loans or help with small business

Cancer information

View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends

Other cancer treatments
Learn more about other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery and targeted therapy