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Cancer immunotherapy

4-minute read

Immunotherapy, sometimes called biological therapy, is a type of cancer treatment that works by boosting a person’s own immune system to fight the cancer. Immunotherapy is currently approved in Australia for some types of cancers, and is also being trialled for other cancers.

The therapy is not right for everyone so if you have cancer, you’ll need to discuss with your doctor whether it could benefit you.

How does immunotherapy work?

Usually, your immune system fights ‘foreign’ cells that cause illnesses and disease. However, some bacteria, viruses and cancer cells find a way to stop your immune system from destroying them and then spread through your body.

Immunotherapy works by either:

  • improving your immune system to attack the foreign cells; or
  • removing whatever is preventing your immune system from attacking the cells

The treatment of cancer is one important area in which immunotherapy is used.

When is immunotherapy used to treat cancer?

In Australia, immunotherapy is currently not used as often as other cancer treatments such as radiotherapy, surgery or chemotherapy.

Depending on whether it is suitable for a person and their circumstances, immunotherapy may be used to treat:

It is also being trialled for other cancers, including leukaemia and breast cancer.

Immunotherapy is mostly used for cancer that is already advanced when diagnosed, or that has come back and spread after treatment. At this stage, it appears that immunotherapy may work better for people who have fewer or no symptoms of cancer.

When considering whether immunotherapy is right for you, your doctor will look at:

  • your general health
  • what type of cancer you might have
  • how much the cancer has grown or spread
  • what kind of treatment you've had already

Types of cancer immunotherapy

Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs)

These either:

  • attach to cancer cells and alert your immune system to destroy them
  • block parts of the cancer cell to slow down its growth
  • carry radiotherapy or chemotherapy therapy directly to the cancer cell to attack it

The most common type of immunotherapy used in Australia is a type of mAb known as checkpoint inhibitors. Checkpoint inhibitors produce a type of protein which exposes cancer cells that have been hiding from your immune system. Your T-cells (fighter cells) can then notice and attack the cancer.

Nonspecific immunotherapies

These therapies are often given with chemotherapy or radiation and use proteins produced by white blood cells to help your body's immune system destroy cancer cells.

Cancer vaccines

Cancer vaccines help your body discover cancer cells. There are 2 types:

  • preventative cancer vaccines, to prevent some types of cancer caused by infections
  • treatment vaccines, to help your body fight cancer that already exists

Learn more about the different types of immunotherapy on the Cancer Australia website.

How is immunotherapy given?

Depending on the type of immunotherapy, it can be administered by:

  • swallowing a pill or liquid (orally)
  • injecting into your vein (intravenously)
  • rubbing a cream onto your skin (topically)
  • putting it directly into your bladder (intravesically)

You might have repeat cycles of treatment for 2-3 weeks, with a break in between. Sometimes you might have 2 immunotherapy drugs together.

What are the benefits of immunotherapy for cancer?

Although response to immunotherapy can vary from person to person, compared to other cancer treatments, benefits of immunotherapy such as checkpoint inhibitors can be:

  • it targets cancer cells without harming your healthy cells
  • improved outcomes in some types of cancer
  • the side effects are generally thought to be milder
  • they can sometimes shrink a tumour to a size, or move it to a location, where it can be surgically removed

What are the possible side effects of immunotherapy?

Common side effects

  • eye inflammation, causing dry, irritated eyes
  • joint inflammation, causing joint pain
  • bowel inflammation, causing stomach pain, blood in the faeces (poo), bloating and diarrhoea
  • dermatitis, causing skin rashes
  • tiredness

Less common side effects

  • headache and changes in eyesight
  • thyroid problems, leading to weight loss or weight gain
  • lung inflammation, causing coughing and shortness of breath
  • liver inflammation, causing yellow skin, dark urine and abdominal pain

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2019

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