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Cancer Immunotherapy

Cancer Immunotherapy

Cancer is one of the harshest diseases someone can get, and a person can be diagnosed with cancer at any age, even if they’re completely healthy. For many people, a cancer diagnosis seems like the end of the world, but thanks to modern medicine there are a lot of different methods doctors use to treat this disease.

The most common methods include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery, but due to advanced research, development, and medical innovation, there are more options. One of the most advanced cancer treatments currently available is immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses substances made by the human body or created in a laboratory and its aim is to boost the immune system. This helps the body fight off cancer cells more efficiently and destroy them.

Immunotherapy is used to treat advanced and late-stage cancers that haven’t responded to previous treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy.

Cancer Immunotherapy - Sheba Medical Center

What Types of Cancer Can Be Treated With Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is an excellent and revolutionary treatment, and it proved to be efficient against multiple different types of cancers when other methods simply weren’t enough. Some of the diseases that can be treated with immunotherapy include:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Brain cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Childhood cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Liver cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Melanoma

Of course, not all of these cancers will be approached in the same way and with the same type of immunotherapy. Before a medical professional decides to administer the immunotherapy, they will do a thorough examination and take into account the treatment that was already provided to the patient before they continue.

Types of Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy isn’t a straightforward type of treatment, and there are multiple types of it based on how it’s performed and what it aims to accomplish. So let’s look over the different types of immunotherapy doctors can offer to patients

Adoptive Cell Therapy (T-cell Transfer Therapy)

Adoptive cell therapy, more simply known as T-cell transfer therapy, is a type of immunotherapy during which a patient’s immune cells are altered so they could better fight off the cancer cells.

There are two different types of T-cell therapy: CAR T-cell therapy and tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL).

The process of performing both of these therapies is very similar. They involve collecting immune cells from the patient, growing a large number of the cells in a laboratory using the specimen taken from the patient, and then injecting those lab-grown cells intravenously via a needle.

Growing T-cells in a lab is a process that can take anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks. While this is taking place, the patient will most likely receive chemotherapy and, in some cases, radiotherapy. This is done to get rid of other immune cells in the patient’s body so they can be ready to receive the lab-grown cells.

CAR T-Cell Therapy

As we mentioned, these two types of therapy are very similar, but it’s still important to make the distinction.

CAR T-cell therapy is performed so the cells which are grown in the lab can create a protein known as chimeric antigen receptor, or CAR for short.

These types of cells are designed in such a way that they attach to specific proteins located on the surface of the cancer cells in an attempt to improve their ability to fight off the cancerous cells.

TIL Therapy

This type of therapy is done with the use of T-cells by the name of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, or TIL for short. A medical professional will test the patient’s lymphocytes in the laboratory and determine which ones are able to recognize the tumor cells.

Once it’s determined which TILs have the most potential to treat the cancer cells, they are treated with substances that will allow them to quickly grow to larger numbers. And after this process is complete, the T-cells will be injected into your body.

Cancer Vaccines

Cancer vaccines, also known as treatment or therapeutic vaccines, are a type of immunotherapy treatment. These vaccines boost the immune system and make it easier for it to fight off cancer cells.

There are different types of cancer vaccines and the doctor will choose if and which vaccine a patient should receive.

A cancer vaccine can keep the disease from coming back, stop a tumor from spreading and growing, or destroy any cancer cells that were left remaining after treatment was completed.

(Immune) Checkpoint Inhibitors

Checkpoint proteins come from T-cells, and their main goal is to activate an immune response, and that response is turned off by other proteins. In some cases, T-cells can stay active for much longer than needed and destroy healthy tissues and cells because they’re reacting to things they shouldn’t be reacting to.

However, some cancers can also produce high levels of protein just like T-cells, for example melanoma and lung cancer. Due to this high level of protein, the T-cells believe they need to switch off, which ultimately makes the immune system come to a stop. And in that case, the T-cells don’t recognize cancer anymore nor do they try to attack it.

This is why doctors need to use checkpoint inhibitors for certain types of cancers.

Checkpoint inhibitors are a type of immunotherapy that works by blocking different checkpoint proteins that are created by cancerous cells. The purpose of this type of immunotherapy is to turn on the immune system and allow T-cells to recognize and fight off the cancer cells.

Immunomodulators (non-specific immunotherapy)

Immunomodulators are molecules that stimulate the immune system in a general way but don’t target cancer cells specifically, which is why this type of treatment is known as non-specific immunotherapy.

Some immunomodulators are used as cancer treatment all on their own while others are used alongside the main treatment in order to boost the immune system.

We can differentiate two types of immunomodulator treatment: cytokines and monoclonal antibody therapy.


Cytokines are molecules that are in charge of the regulation of the growth, maturation, and responsiveness of immune cells, and when used as treatment, they are injected into the patient. This is done either in a vein, under the skin, or into a muscle.

We can divide cytokines into interferons and interleukins.

Interferons are chemicals that help the body resist cancers, infections, and viruses. Interleukins are a group of cytokines that allow the cells in the immune system to grow and divide more rapidly, and they do this by acting as chemical signals between white blood cells.

Bacillus Calmette-Guerin

Bacillus Calmette-Guerin, or BCG for short, is a germ that has the ability to infect the tissues inside the human body without causing serious disease. On the contrary, it helps activate the immune system which makes it perfect for immunotherapy.

Monoclonal Antibody Therapy

Antibodies are a part of the human immune system, they’re naturally occurring and they help us fight off infection and illnesses. And monoclonal antibodies, or MABs for short, are copies of a certain type of antibody.

MABs are created in a lab as a copy of just one type of antibody and they can work against different types of illnesses, not just cancer. Depending on what the medical professional wants to accomplish, MBAs can work in different ways.

When they’re used for cancer treatment, MBAs typically trigger the immune system, which allows it to fight off cancer cells. Additionally, different MBSa are used for different cancers.

Immunotherapy Procedure

Just like there are different types of immunotherapy, there are also multiple ways a doctor can administer an immunotherapy procedure:

  • IV immunotherapy: Administered directly into the vein as an infusion.
  • Intravesical immunotherapy: Administered as a liquid medication, used only for early-stage bladder cancer.
  • Oral immunotherapy: Administered as a powder or drops, typically with food or under the tongue.
  • Subcutaneous immunotherapy: Injected under the skin.
  • Topical immunotherapy: Applied to the skin as a cream.

How long an immunotherapy session lasts differs based on what type of treatment is given and the severity of the condition. However, you can expect a session to last for anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes and doses should be administered every two to three weeks.

Most people who are on immunotherapy stay on it for up to two years.

Benefits of Immunotherapy

When compared to other cancer treatment options, immunotherapy is usually considered to have more benefits and lead to an improved quality of life.

Here are some of the biggest benefits of immunotherapy:

It offers a much greater chance of curing cancers. When cancer doesn’t respond well to other therapies, immunotherapy has a much bigger chance of success. And it’s even more likely to be successful if used in combination with other treatments and therapies.

There is a lower chance the cancer will return. Cancer recurrence is unfortunately always a possibility and it can happen with every type of cancer. However, the chances of cancer returning are much lower for patients who receive immunotherapy as opposed to other treatments.

It causes fewer side effects. Even though every type of cancer treatment causes some side effects, immunotherapy has fewer side effects than for example chemotherapy or radiotherapy. This is because immunotherapy doesn’t target all the other cells in your body but instead, it targets just your immune system.

Immunotherapy Side Effects

As we already mentioned, immunotherapy has much fewer side effects than any other cancer treatment therapy. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any side effects at all because any and every form of treatment can cause some sort of negative reaction.

One of the hardest aftereffects to deal with is the immune-related adverse effect or irAE for short. This issue can sometimes occur because even though immunotherapy was designed in such a way to make your immune cells stronger and allow them to fight off cancer cells, this isn’t always the case.

Rarely, this can have the opposite effect and cause these cells to attack healthy tissue and cause inflammation. However, this only happens to approximately 20% of patients.

Certain immunomodulators such as lenalidomide, thalidomide and pomalidomide come with their own potential side effect. These include nerve damage, blood clots and drowsiness or fatigue.

The side effects of cancer vaccines include high blood pressure and flu-like symptoms. This can include fever, fatigue, muscle or joint pains, shortness of breath, and a high fever.

There isn’t a set time when you can expect the side effects to start, but it usually happens when the immunotherapy starts to work. This can take months or sometimes even years.

According to some studies, these side effects indicate that the treatment is working and your body is fighting off the cancerous cells. However, some people who go through immunotherapy don’t experience any side effects at all but that doesn’t mean the therapy isn’t working.

Immunotherapy Treatment at Sheba Medical Center

The fight against cancer is never-ending, but thanks to constant medical innovation and improvement, we’re constantly finding new ways to battle the disease.

Immunotherapy is a truly revolutionary and even fascinating form of cancer treatment. So far it’s shown promising results, it has very minor side effects, and it can treat multiple different kinds of cancer even when other treatment options fail.

We here at Sheba Medical Center offer immunotherapy, and if you’re interested in finding out more, request a consultation.

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