Immunotherapy: What You Need to Know

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

MARCH 06, 2024

Cancer patient receiving treatment

Immunotherapy is a form of cancer treatment that relies on a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. It changes the way the immune system works by interfering with cancer’s ability to paralyze the system and boosting its ability to produce antibodies that target cancer cells. 

A type of biological therapy, or treatment using substances made from living organisms to treat disease, immunotherapy works in two major ways: ordering the immune system to attack and kill cancer cells and targeting those cells to make them easier for the body to recognize. While the immune system may prevent or slow cancer on its own, cancer cells naturally find ways to avoid harm. For example, they may mutate in ways that make them less visible to the immune system, come with proteins that turn off immune cells, and even compromise non-cancerous cells. 

Different Types of Immunotherapy

Immunotherapies are used to treat many kinds of cancer and, as research continues, are likely to become even more widely prescribed. Some of the different types of immunotherapy used for cancer treatment include: 

Checkpoint Inhibitors: Drugs that block immune checkpoints, a normal part of the immune system’s functioning, which allows the immune cells to respond more strongly to cancer cells.

  • CAR T-Cell Therapy: Individualized treatments made from the body’s T cells grown in a lab to create a substance to be infused back into the body.
  • Monoclonal Antibodies: Lab-grown antibodies that bind to specific parts of cancer cells, making them more visible to the immune system and easier to target. 
  • Vaccines: Unlike vaccines meant to protect from disease, these vaccines help the body recognize and attack cancer cells. 
  • Immunomodulators: Drugs designed to boost various parts of the immune system. 
  • Oncolytic Viruses: Lab-modified viruses used to infect and kill certain cancer cells. 
  • Cytokines: A treatment using small messenger proteins to direct immune cells to attack and kill cancer.  

A healthy immune system makes a world of difference when it comes to fighting cancer. Though there are many talking points and sales pitches about how to best boost the immune system, the best thing you can do for your immune system is go back to basics: eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, and aim for moderate exercise. Furthermore, the three most important things we can do to help our immune system are to wash our hands, avoid touching our faces, and staying away from people who are sick—all things we learned over the course of the pandemic.

Learn more about immunotherapy at BIDMC by checking out our Immunotherapy Institute

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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