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About Cancer Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that helps the body’s immune system fight cancer. It works around the cancer’s defenses and makes the immune system’s response stronger. It is an effective treatment for many different types of cancer, and it has the potential to benefit all cancer patients.

At Huntsman Cancer Institute, we use immunotherapies to treat many types of cancers. These therapies include FDA-approved treatments and immunotherapies available through clinical trials to test their effectiveness and safety in treating certain types of cancers.

How Immunotherapy Works with Your Immune System

The immune system is the way your body fights infection and disease. Usually, your immune system finds and destroys abnormal cells and foreign substances that invade the body (such as bacteria and viruses).

Special immune system cells called dendritic cells help the immune system work by finding antigens. Antigens are substances that cause the immune system to react. Dendritic cells move through the body to pick up and process debris from abnormal cells, including cancer cells and cells that have been infected with a foreign substance. The dendritic cells tell the immune system’s fighter cells, called T cells, about any antigens they find. The T cells move into action, traveling through the body to look for and kill the infected or abnormal cells.

But cancer cells have many defenses against the immune system:

  • They make it hard for the immune system to find them.
  • They deactivate the immune system cells.
  • They make other cells nearby release substances that slow the immune system and speed up tumor growth.

How Cancer Immunotherapy Works

Unlike chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or targeted therapy, immunotherapy does not kill the cancer cells directly. Instead, it activates or reactivates the immune system. Different immunotherapies work in different ways:

  • Some immunotherapies help the immune system find cancer cells so it can attack them.
  • Some immunotherapies take away roadblocks the cancer cells put up to try and stop the immune system.
  • Other immunotherapies make the immune system faster and stronger.

Immunotherapy may cause side effects depending on a patient’s health, type and stage of cancer, and length of time taking the treatment. Doctors in the Immunotherapy Adverse Neurologic Events Clinic at Huntsman Cancer Institute help find and treat side effects so patients have the best possible outcome.

Types of Immunotherapy

Adoptive cell transfer and other cell-based therapies

In tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL) treatment, T cells are taken from your tumor. Scientists find which of those T cells have been most effective at fighting your cancer, and they grow more of these T cells in the lab. Then large amounts of these T cells are given back to you.

CAR T cell therapy is a type of adoptive cell transfer. T cells are taken from your blood. Scientists change the DNA of these T cells so they will recognize cancer cells. The modified T cells are then given back to you.

Monoclonal antibodies

Antibodies are immune system proteins that bind to antigens. They can be made in the lab to target antigens on cancer cells or immune cells. They can tell the immune cells to attack the cells containing the antigen or make the immune system stronger.

Checkpoint inhibitors, immune agonists, and other immune-modulatory agents are types of monoclonal antibodies.

Vaccine therapy

Vaccine therapy uses antigens from the cancer cells to trigger the body’s immune system so it will fight those cells. The BCG vaccine is an example of a vaccine used to treat cancer. The most recent type of vaccine therapy targets the unique tumor antigens of each patient. This is called a neoantigen vaccine.


Cytokines are substances cells make that affect the immune system. Interleukins and interferons are two types of cytokines used in cancer treatment. Interleukins help immune system cells grow and divide. Interferons help immune system cells fight cancer cells better.

Intratumoral injectables

Intratumoral injectables are injected right into the tumor. This type of immunotherapy includes oncolytic viruses, which infect cancer cells and alert the immune system to attack the cancer cells. Other intratumoral injectables include toll-like receptor (TLR) agonists and STING agonists.

Learn more about immunotherapy from the National Cancer Institute.

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