Is Immunotherapy Really A Breakthrough In Cancer Treatment?

Immunotherapy, also known as Biologic Therapy or Biotherapy, is a new and potentially ground-breaking form of treatment that uses a person’s own immune system to help fight cancer. It works by helping the immune system to recognize and destroy the cancer cells by using antibodies or immune system proteins.

Are there different types of Immunotherapy treatment for cancer?

There are different types of immunotherapies, some of which are also known as targeted or biological therapies. The treatment drugs or methods can be classified into the following types:

Monoclonal antibodies

These are replicas or clines of immune system proteins called antibodies which are artificially grown in the laboratory. These antibodies can be very useful in treating cancer because they can be designed to attack specific parts of a cancer cell as well as to mark these cells by binding to them and, thereby, helping the immune system to target these cells and destroy them.


Checkpoint inhibitors

These are the drugs that help block proteins that act as immune system “checkpoints” or “off switches” and prevent the immune system cells (also known as T cells) from attacking other cells in the body. Some cancer cells produce proteins that can act as immune system checkpoints and switch off the T cells, thereby preventing them from attacking the cancer cells. Drugs that block these proteins and prevent them from switching of the T cells are known as checkpoint inhibitors. By using these drugs, T cells can be made to attack and destroy the cancer cells. 

Adoptive cell transfer

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a type of adoptive cell transfer therapy that can benefit patients with some types of leukaemia and lymphoma. It works by transferring the patient’s own cells or another person’s cells into the patient’s body which boosts the ability of the body’s T-cells to fight against cancer. The transferred cells are usually T-cells.

First the T-cells are removed from the blood and then a new gene is introduced into the cells to enable them to recognise cancer cells. The T-cells are then returned back into the blood by an infusion (intravenous drip).

Non-specific Immunotherapies


These are proteins made by your own body’s cells. They play important role in the body’s immune responses and its ability to respond to cancer by interfering with cancer cell multiplication or making cancer cells more easily identifiable to the immune system. The two main man-made types of cytokines used to treat cancer are called interferons (it slows down the growth of cancer cells) and interleukins (it destroys cancer cells).

Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG)

BCG is a vaccine which provides protection against Tuberculosis. It is also used to treat bladder cancer and is inserted directly into the bladder with a catheter causing immune response against cancer cells.

 Active specific immunotherapies (cancer vaccines)

These are substances injected into the patient to trigger an active immune response by the patient’s own immune system to prevent or treat cancer. These vaccines make the immune system produce antibodies against antigens and to produce the cytotoxic T lymphocytes which attack cancer cells. The two types of vaccines which can boost the immune response are Prevention vaccines and Treatment vaccines.

How is Immunotherapy given to a patient?

Man-made immune system proteins can be administered using the following techniques:

Intravenous (IV) – It goes directly into a vein

Oral- It is available in pills or capsules that can be swallowed

Topical– It is in the form of cream that can be rubbed onto your skin which is used for very early stage skin cancer

Intravesical– It goes directly into the bladder

Which types of cancers can be treated with immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy has led to a major breakthrough in treating various forms of cancer. Though every cancer is unique in kind, immunotherapy can impact each form of cancer in a multitude of different ways. It is still in clinical trials but has proven to be a powerful therapy in treating certain cancers like leukemia and those of the breast, lungs, cervix, colon, rectum as well as a serious type of cancer known as melanoma. Immunotherapy has the potential to improve the survival rate as well as quality of life the patient.

How effective is immunotherapy in cancer treatment?

Conventional treatments for cancer aim to kill cancer cells through radiation (burning them), chemotherapy (poisoning them) and by surgery (removing them) but are imperfect because large numbers of healthy cells are also destroyed in the process.

However, immunotherapy for cancer is more effective and is less toxic. It works better on some types of cancers wherein long remissions have been observed by doctors. More than 30 types of immunotherapy drugs are currently in development and lots of clinical trials are underway. The results have truly shaken up the world of oncology.

What are the major benefits of Immunotherapy?

For certain cancers, immunotherapy has proven to deliver significantly longer and overall progression-free survival in cancer patients than with other forms of treatments for cancer. Benefits include:

  • It has the highest rate of success with no side effects like hair loss, infections, pain, vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea, weight loss, etc. which are common side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment,
  • During the treatment healthy cells are not destroyed or affected
  • Taste buds are not damaged
  • It avoids the conditions like Osteoradionecrosis (bone death)
  • Immunotherapy treatment is available for all the four stages of different types of cancer in certain types of cancers such as pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, melanoma, etc.
  • It is often less expensive than convention cancer treatments.


Can immunotherapy cause side effects?

Immunotherapy can cause side effects, depending on how healthy you are and your specific type of cancer

Common side effects include:

  • Dry irritated eyes
  • Pain in the joints
  • Diarrhoea, bloody stools, abdominal pain and bloating
  • Skin rashes on the body

Rare side effects include:

  • Headache
  • Thyroid-related conditions
  • Shortness of breath and coughing
  • Yellowing of eyes, severe abdominal pain and dark urine
  • Severe or even fatal allergic reactions

How Often Will You Receive Immunotherapy Treatment?

Cancer patients can be given treatment every day, weekly or monthly and some can be given in cycles with each cycle comprising a period of treatment followed by a period of rest which gives the body a chance to recover and respond to the immunotherapy, and build healthy cells. The exact frequency of treatment depends on the type of cancer, on which stage it is at, the type of immunotherapy given and how your body reacts to the treatment.