"Immunotherapy" is a term that you likely have heard and wondered about. The simple definition is that immunotherapy is therapy that uses the body's own immune system/defenses to fight cancer. Some types are also called biologic therapy or biotherapy. Some of these treatments try to generally boost the immune system and some are more cancer-fighting-specific. None are in widespread use, but there is a great deal of excitement and hope in the scientific community about their value in the future.
One reason that scientists are excited about these possibilities is that immunotherapies generally have far fewer side effects than standard chemotherapies. We are in favor of that! The main types of immunotherapies currently in use to treat cancer are:
Monoclonal antibodies: These are man-made versions of immune system proteins. Antibodies can be very useful in treating cancer because they can be designed to attack a very specific part of a cancer cell.
Cancer vaccines: Vaccines are substances put into the body to start an immune response against certain diseases. We usually think of them as being given to healthy people to help prevent infections. But some vaccines can help prevent or treat cancer.
Non-specific immunotherapies: These treatments boost the immune system in a general way, but this can still help the immune system attack cancer cells.
Note that none of these treatments are fully ready for prime time. Meaning that, yes, they are available; yes, there has been real promise shown; yes, most are parts of clinical trials rather than widely available treatments. The American Cancer Society has a good information section about all of this: http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/immunotherapy/immunotherapy-immune-system
For more exciting reading, here is a story from The Wall Street Journal:
BY RON WINSLOW
How the Promise of Immunotherapy Is Transforming Oncology
Tom Telford ’s stomach ached. The New York City teacher had been
drinking cup after cup of coffee as he labored to finish year-end grading
and coach his high-school baseball team through the playoffs. He worried he
might have an ulcer.
When school let out, though, Mr. Telford looked forward to relaxing on a 25th
anniversary cruise with his wife. But once in the Caribbean, he struggled to
swim and climbing from one deck to another exhausted him. Back at home, he
collapsed while running a TV cable in his bedroom.
His family doctor told him he had lost two pints of blood. Further tests revealed
a tumor the size of a quarter on his small intestine. He had surgery at Memorial
Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, followed by months of chemotherapy. But the
disease spread to his liver and kidneys. The diagnosis: Stage 4 melanoma, a skin
cancer typically fatal within a year.
“Death is not an option,” he told his doctor.
Nine years later, against all odds, Mr. Telford is still alive. What saved him was
an experimental immunotherapy drug—a medication that unleashes the body’s
own immune system to attack cancer.
Read more: http://online.wsj.com/articles/cancers-super-survivors-how-immunotherapy-is-transforming-oncology-1417714379