What Is Immunotherapy for Cancer?

By The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center


In recent years, the landscape of cancer treatments has witnessed a groundbreaking shift with the introduction of immunotherapy. This cutting-edge approach harnesses the body's own immune system to combat and conquer cancer cells. Let's dive into the details to learn more about this transformative technique and explore its impact on the fight against brain cancer.


What Is Immunotherapy? 

Immunotherapy, often hailed as the "fifth pillar" of cancer treatment, stands out for its unique ability to empower the immune system. Unlike traditional treatments, which directly target cancer cells, immunotherapy stimulates the body's natural defenses, enhancing its capacity to identify and eliminate malignant cells.


How Does Immunotherapy Work? 

Immunotherapy operates on a captivating principle, the immune system's inherent ability to recognize foreign entities, including cancer cells, is harnessed to enhance its proficiency in identifying and eliminating abnormal cells. 


This involves utilizing substances like cytokines, antibodies, and immune checkpoint inhibitors. By unveiling cancer cells, the immune system becomes adept at identifying and eliminating them.


Within and around tumors, immune cells, specifically referred to as tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs), can be found. The presence of TILs serves as an indicator that the immune system is actively responding to the tumor.


Despite the immune system's ability to impede cancer progression, cancer cells employ various tactics to avoid its destructive effects. These strategies encompass genetic alterations that make them less detectable by the immune system, surface proteins that deactivate immune cells, and modifications to normal cells surrounding the tumor, disrupting the immune system's response to cancer cells. Immunotherapy plays a pivotal role in augmenting the immune system's capacity to effectively combat cancer.


In essence, immunotherapy harnesses the power of our immune system to target and combat cancer cells. By assisting the immune system in recognizing and attacking cancer cells, it plays a crucial role in the fight against cancer.


How successful Is immunotherapy for brain cancer?

Since immunotherapy is a fairly new treatment that is being tested for cancers such as brain cancer, there is not enough research to show how effective it is on the brain. Make sure to speak with one of our doctors to see if immunotherapy could be an option for you. 


Types of Immunotherapy

There are many types of immunotherapy treatments being tested to help cure brain cancer. Here are some of the most popular treatments being researched: 


Monoclonal Antibodies

Monoclonal Antibodies, often abbreviated as MABs, function by stimulating the immune system, aiding it in the fight against cancer. Some MABs operate with a specific focus, such as inhibiting signals that encourage cancer cells to divide. Antibodies, naturally occurring in our bloodstream, play a vital role in combating infections.


MAB therapies replicate these natural antibodies but are synthetically produced in a laboratory setting. The term "monoclonal" indicates that each MAB consists of numerous copies of a single type of antibody. 


Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors

Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors operate through varied mechanisms, with some exhibiting multiple modes of action. As a subtype of immunotherapy, these inhibitors serve as a treatment for cancers such as melanoma skin cancer and lung cancer. Specifically, these drugs interfere with various checkpoint proteins, and they are often named after these specific proteins, such as CTLA-4 inhibitors, PD-1 inhibitors, and PD-L1 inhibitors.


These inhibitors play a crucial role in blocking proteins that would otherwise impede the immune system from effectively attacking cancer cells. It's worth noting that cancer drugs, including checkpoint inhibitors, don't always neatly fit into a single treatment category. Due to their diverse modes of action, some drugs belong to more than one group. In the case of checkpoint inhibitors, they are also classified as a type of monoclonal antibody or targeted treatment, showcasing the multifaceted approach these innovative therapies employ in the battle against cancer.


Cancer Vaccines

Preventative vaccines are designed to shield against the development of cancer. The concept underlying treatment vaccines is centered around the recognition of substances known as tumor-associated antigens within cancer cells. These antigens either don't exist in normal cells or, if present, are found at lower levels.


Treatment vaccines function by assisting the immune system in learning how to identify and respond to these specific antigens. By doing so, the immune system becomes better equipped to recognize and eliminate cancer cells that harbor these distinctive antigens. 


Oncolytic Virus Therapy

Oncolytic Virus Therapy employs a modified virus with the capability to infect and eradicate tumor cells. Viruses, as microscopic particles, infiltrate or enter our cells, utilizing the cell's genetic machinery to replicate and then propagate to neighboring uninfected cells. T cells, a subset of white blood cells, play a crucial role in the immune system and originate from stem cells in the bone marrow.


In this therapeutic approach, researchers have engineered a cancer-infecting virus to obstruct the immune-suppressing protein TGF-beta and regulatory T cells (Tregs). This modification enhances the ability of T cells to mount an attack against the tumor, showcasing the innovative strides being made in leveraging viruses to target and combat cancer cells.


T-Cell Therapy 

T-Cell Therapy, specifically CAR T-cell therapy, stands as a distinctive form of immunotherapy, also referred to as adoptive cell transfer. This intricate and specialized treatment involves a meticulous process wherein a specialist collects and modifies a small number of your T cells. Following this modification, a drip containing these altered T cells is reintroduced into your bloodstream after a few weeks. The modified CAR T-cells then possess the capability to recognize and mount an attack against cancer cells. 


What Are The Side Effects of Immunotherapy? 

The side effects can vary depending on many factors such as how healthy you are before beginning treatment, the dosage you are on, what type of immunotherapy you are on, how advanced your cancer is, and more. 


However, here are some side effects that have been seen from immunotherapy: 

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea 
  • Joint Aches
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Low or High Blood Pressure
  • Trouble Breathing 


How Is Immunotherapy Given? 

This can vary depending on the type of immunotherapy you are being given. Immunotherapy can be given intravenously (through a vein), subcutaneously (under the skin through an injection), or intramuscularly (into a muscle). At times, immunotherapy can even be given directly where the tumor is located. 


How Long Does Immunotherapy Take To Work? 

Since this is a new treatment, there is still debate over how long this medication can take to work. Many patients have been on immunotherapy for around two years. In general, it takes weeks or even months for immunotherapy treatments like checkpoint inhibitors to begin working. It depends on how the patient's immune system and the type of cancer they have respond to the treatment. 


Doctors can track if the treatment is working by monitoring if there is any shrinking in tumor size or if the tumor is staying the same size. This, along with other factors can give doctors an idea of how fast or slow certain treatments take to work. There may be other signs that these treatments are affecting the immune system in other ways; however, since this is new in the field, there is still a lot of research needed to draw any firm conclusions. 


Best Brain Tumor Treatment Center 

Take the first step towards comprehensive care and a brighter future. Choose the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center for personalized and advanced brain cancer treatment. Your journey to healing begins here. 


Schedule a consultation with our expert team today or pay our offices in Durham, NC, a visit to book an appointment. Your well-being is our priority, and we look forward to helping you along your journey. 


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Commonly Asked Questions

At what stage of cancer is immunotherapy used?

Immunotherapy is typically recommended for patients with advanced cancer. 


Is immunotherapy a last resort for cancer?

Immunotherapy is still a new treatment option in the medical field. It is typically used when other treatment options have failed to work. 


How sick does immunotherapy make you?

This can vary depending on the patient’s unique circumstances; however, common side effects are chills, nausea, fatigue, headaches, fever, and more. 


What type of cancer can be treated with immunotherapy?

While this is still being studied, research has shown that immunotherapy can be used to treat various forms of cancer such as brain cancer, breast cancer, bladder cancer, cervical cancer, kidney cancer, head and neck cancer, and more.