What is “Immunotherapy?”


Immunotherapy, it is a word that gets thrown around a lot, especially in cancer circles, but do you know what it is?  If you are newly diagnosed, or a friend or family member of someone who has been diagnosed, you may have heard the word but be unfamiliar with what it really means.  When it comes to cancer treatment, people often think of chemotherapy or radiation but immunotherapy is another treatment option.  While immunotherapy has some similar qualities to chemotherapy or radiation in the treatment of cancer, it also varies significantly.  The National Cancer Institute describes what immunotherapy is and why it is important, “In the past few years, the rapidly advancing field of cancer immunology has produced several new methods of treating cancer, called immunotherapies, that increase the strength of immune responses against tumors. Immunotherapies either stimulate the activities of specific components of the immune system or counteract signals produced by cancer cells that suppress immune responses. These advances in cancer immunotherapy are the result of long-term investments in basic research on the immune system—research that continues today. Additional research is currently under way to:

  • understand why immunotherapy is effective in some patients but not in others who have the same cancer
  • expand the use of immunotherapy to more types of cancer
  • increase the effectiveness of immunotherapy by combining it with other types of cancer treatment, such as targeted therapy, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy”

There are different kinds of immunotherapy.  Kinds of immunotherapy include monoclonal antibodies, immune checkpoint inhibitors, cancer vaccines (for both prevention and treatment), and other non-specific immunotherapies (two common types include interferon and interleukins). Whether you have a strong history of cancer in your family or have been diagnosed with cancer it is important to discuss all treatment options with your physician, including immunotherapies. It is wise to discuss immunotherapy as a supplement to treatment or as a sole form of treatment and to have a clear understanding of how your physician intends to use immunotherapy.  Like other forms of cancer treatment, immunotherapy does have side effects including flu-like symptoms such as fever, nausea, chills and loss of appetite.  Additionally, patients may experience swelling, rashes or an impact on blood pressure.  And, as often experienced by most cancer patients undergoing treatment, fatigue may be a side effect.  The American Cancer Society describes how immunotherapy is rocking the cancer treatment world and holds significant promise for the future, ” Immunotherapy is “providing options for people out of options,” says Catherine Diefenbach, M.D., an oncologist at the NYU Langone Medical Center. With the help of an American Cancer Society research grant, Diefenbach is studying a new immunotherapy treatment for patients with relapsed Hodgkin lymphoma. “There are no really good options for these people now – most are cured upfront, but only about 50% of those who aren’t, can be salvaged with a stem cell transplant,” says Diefenbach. She is testing a combination of a drug currently used in isolation, Brentuximab vedotin, and the anti-CTLA-4 immunotherapy drug ipilimumab. “We want patients to have a long-term remission that they couldn’t get on Brentuximab alone.” “To date, chemotherapy for Hodgkin lymphoma has attacked the tumor cells, but no treatments have been aimed at turning the immune cells, which protect the tumor, against the tumor,” according to Diefenbach.

Diefenbach believes immunotherapies, like the one she is researching, will be “practice changing” in Hodgkin lymphoma. “

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