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Immunotherapy, also called biological therapy, uses your own immune system to fight cancer. It generally results in fewer short-term side effects than chemotherapy does.

Immunotherapies being used or studied to treat blood cancer include:

Doctors use immunotherapy in several different ways to treat blood cancers, including:

  • in combination with other types of cancer treatment
  • as maintenance therapy after combination chemotherapy
  • as a single agent

Cancer and the Immune System

Our immune system helps protect us against disease and infection. It includes a network of cells and organs that help defend the body from "antigens." Antigens are foreign substances such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, harmful toxins and allergens. When antigens are ingested or inhaled or come into contact with the skin or mucous membranes, they stimulate an immune response: White cells produce antibodies that "coat" the antigens, marking them as targets for other white cells or inactivating the antigens. The other white cells then attack and destroy the antigens.

In most circumstances, the body's natural immune system seems unable to identify cancer as a foreign invader. One reason for this may be that cancer cells aren't external invaders like viruses and bacteria are. Instead, cancer cells are altered versions (mutations) of normal cells and don't produce a unique feature like an antigen that will trigger an immune response. What's more, cancer cells may also suppress immunity, which may contribute to the immune system's failure to recognize cancer cells as foreign invaders.

Immunotherapy is based on the concept that immune cells or antibodies that can recognize and kill cancer cells can be produced in the laboratory and then given to patients to treat cancer. Several types of immunotherapy are either approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration or are under study in clinical trials to determine their effectiveness in treating various types of cancer.

Immunotherapy Treatment Approaches

Researchers are studying immunotherapy with three general approaches:

  • Immune cells from the patient or a transplant donor are used to attack residual leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma cells that remain after chemotherapy
  • Manmade antibodies are able to attach to antigens on the cancer cell, using samples of tumors
  • Vaccines are being developed that may suppress cancer cells left in the body after therapy and thereby prolong remission.

Other Immunotherapy Treatment

Other treatments used to stimulate the immune system in a general way and used in combination with monoclonal antibodies, vaccines or chemotherapy are substances called cytokines. Cytokines are hormones produced by the body that help the immune system function. Manmade cytokines are used as an adjunct (additional) therapy to boost the immune system. Examples of these treatments are:

  • granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF)
  • interleukin-2 (IL-2)
  • interferon

Clinical Trials

If you're interested in immunotherapy, discuss the treatment with your doctor to learn whether you're a candidate. If the treatment isn't available, your doctor may refer you to a clinical trial that's studying a form of immunotherapy. See TrialCheck® for a list of current clinical trials.

More to Explore

Download or order The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's free fact sheet Immunotherapy Facts

last updated on Tuesday, March 15, 2011
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