Immunotherapy uses the body's immune system to help treat or prevent many health problems from allergies to cancer.
Your immune system protects you from illness and foreign substances that can harm you. Scientists have found a way to use the body's immune system to help treat or prevent many health problems. This treatment is known as biological therapy, also called immunotherapy, biological response modifier therapy, or biotherapy.
Immunotherapy may be used to:
Immunotherapy uses the body's immune system to fight cancer. The cells, antibodies, and organs of the immune system work to protect and defend the body against foreign invaders, such as bacteria or viruses. Healthcare providers and researchers have found that the immune system might also be able to both determine the difference between healthy cells and cancer cells in the body, and to eliminate the cancer cells. (By itself, the immune system is not always good at destroying cancer cells.)
Biological therapies are designed to boost the immune system, either directly or indirectly. They assist in the following:
Biological therapies can be used alone to treat cancer. They can also be combined with other treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
The immune system includes different types of white blood cells, each with a different way to fight against foreign or diseased cells, including cancer:
These types of white blood cells—B cells, T cells, natural killer cells, and monocytes—are in the blood and circulate to every part of the body, providing protection from cancer and other diseases. White blood cells secrete many types of substances, including antibodies and cytokines. Antibodies respond to harmful substances that they recognize, called antigens. Specific (helpful) antibodies match specific (foreign) antigens by locking together. Cytokines are proteins made by some immune system cells that attract other immune system cells or that may directly attack cancer cells. Cytokines are also messengers that communicate with other cells.
As each person's medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any or all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins.
Side effects of biological therapy vary according to the type of therapy given. They may include the following:
Specifically, interleukins and interferons often cause flulike symptoms. These include fever, chills, aches, and fatigue. Other side effects may include a rash or swelling at the injection site. Interleukins can be associated with low blood pressure and generally need close monitoring in the hospital during infusion. Monoclonal antibodies sometimes cause allergic reactions during the treatment or infusion.