Immunotherapy is an innovative cancer treatment that uses certain components of a patient’s immune system to fight his or her cancer. This can be done by stimulating the patient’s immune system to target cancer cells or by introducing man-made immune system proteins and other elements into the patient’s body. Immunotherapy has proven more successful in treating certain types of cancer than others. However, new forms of immunotherapy are being researched every day and will continue to impact the way we approach cancer treatment moving forward.
How does immunotherapy work?
There are several types of immunotherapy treatments; some boost the patient’s immune system in a general way while others train the immune system to target cancer cells specifically. Immune cells travel throughout the body via the lymphatic system to fight off infection by attacking germ cells. Because germ cells contain proteins that are not normally found in the body, the immune system is able to identify them as invaders. Cancer cells also contain unfamiliar substances, but because cancer usually develops gradually as healthy cells undergo abnormal changes, the immune system is often able to adapt to the changes and does not always recognize the cancerous cells as being foreign.
Types of immunotherapy
With this in mind, researchers are studying immunotherapy as a way to boost the immune system and help it identify and target cancerous cells. Several types of immunotherapy can be used for treating cancer, including:
- Adoptive cell transfer – T-cells are removed from the patient, multiplied in a lab and then reinfused to the patient.
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors – These drugs help a patient’s immune system recognize and attack cancer cells.
- Cytokines – Man-made cytokines, a group of proteins found naturally in the body, are used to treat cancer.
- Monoclonal antibodies – Man-made monoclonal antibodies are administered to a patient to attack his or her cancer cells.
- Cancer vaccines – Vaccines are injected into the body to stimulate the immune system, essentially training it to work against certain diseases, such as cancer.
- Other immunotherapies – These treatments boost a patient’s immune system in a general way to enhance its ability to fight cancer cells.
How is immunotherapy administered?
Immunotherapies may be administered either into a vein (intravenously), by an injection, under the skin (subcutaneously) or into a muscle (intramuscularly). Certain types of immunotherapy may be delivered directly to the body cavity where the tumor is located.
What cancers can be treated by immunotherapy?
Each patient is evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine if immunotherapy is right for him or her. That said, immunotherapy has proven to be a viable treatment option for a number of different cancers, including:
- Bladder cancer
- Brain cancer
- Breast cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Head and neck cancers
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Lung cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Ovarian cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Skin cancer
- Stomach cancer
Side effects of immunotherapy
Immunotherapy, like other cancer treatments, may cause a number of side effects. The specific side effects a person experiences will depend on the specific type of immunotherapy he or she had. That said, common side effects of immunotherapy are similar to flu-like symptoms and may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Decreased appetite
Much less commonly, a number of severe side effects may also occur up to two years following immunotherapy. It is important for all immunotherapy patients to be aware of the severe side effects of immunotherapy and to contact their doctor right away if they occur. Some severe side effects and their symptoms may include:
- Inflammation of the liver (hepatitis) – Jaundice, severe nausea or vomiting and tea-colored urine
- Inflammation of the colon (colitis) – Bloody or black stools, diarrhea and severe stomach pain
- Inflammation of the lung (pneumonitis) – Chest pain, shortness of breath and coughing
- Inflammation of the brain (meningitis, neuropathy or encephalitis) – Confusion, hallucinations, memory problems, sleepiness and headache
- Kidney problems – Change in urine color or amount, blood in the urine, loss of appetite and swelling in the ankles
- Eye problems – Blurry or double vision, eye redness and eye pain
Immunotherapy clinical trials
As with other forms of cancer treatment, immunotherapy clinical trials are currently being conducted to improve treatment for patients with many different types of cancer. Patients are encouraged to participate in appropriate immunotherapy clinical trials for several reasons. To begin, patients who participate in a clinical trial can be among the first to benefit from novel therapies before those options are made widely available. Additionally, immunotherapy clinical trials may provide new hope for patients who have not had success with traditional forms of treatment.
Immunotherapy treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center
At Moffitt Cancer Center, our scientists and clinicians are continually developing novel cellular immunotherapy treatments for various types of cancer, and we continue to gain ground in understanding and treating all forms of this complex disease. As we discover promising new treatment options through our laboratory breakthroughs, we are committed bringing those treatments to clinical trials as quickly as possible so that our patients can benefit from them. Additionally, our multispecialty team of experts provides outstanding clinical care for patients who are receiving immunotherapies, constantly reviewing their responses to treatment and updating their treatment plans as needed. Moffitt’s leadership is also continually recruiting outstanding new faculty members to further develop our cellular immunotherapy program.
If you’d like to learn more about immunotherapy, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online to request an appointment with an expert at Moffitt. We see patients with and without referrals.