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What is Immunotherapy?

Developments in immunology are redefining the treatment of cancer.

Cancer cells dividing.

The Basics

Each individual's cancer is as unique as their own biology, and every individual's immune system responds differently to cancer.

An immunotherapy approach simply means the stimulation of the immune system to fight disease, which may or may not be specific to an individual's biology.

To achieve maximum, lasting efficacy for patients, IF supports research that integrates the most powerful elements of these different immunotherapies and technologies. This precision immunotherapy approach, pioneered between leaders at University of California - San Diego and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, looks at an individual's biology as the starting point for designing therapies. Treatments are tailored to the unique aspects of an individual's cancer, leveraging their own immune system to most effectively battle disease.

This approach offers virtually endless applications - it is unbound by the restrictions that exist on other kinds of therapies.

How it Works

As acknowledged by the American Cancer Society in their History of Cancer resource, "cancer treatment has gone through a slow process of development."[1] While cancer has been documented by some of the earliest human civilizations, effectively mapping its biology and subsequent treatment has only been made possible in the last few centuries, with radical results. Most readers are likely familiar with the terms chemotherapy and radiation, the results of a surge of new scientific discoveries in the early-to-mid 20th century. These approaches to cancer therapy dominated the standard of care for most of the 20th century, and while they achieve efficacy, the approach does not promise lasting remission, its nonspecific toxicity takes a heavy toll on cancer patients, and offers little hope to patients with metastatic disease, where cancer has spread from its origin site via lymph or blood to other areas of the body. But breakthroughs in re-imagining cancer through the paradigm of immunology have led to completely new possibilities.

"These patients are probably cured" is not something most oncologists get to say about their patients with advanced cancer.[2]. But with the most cutting-edge immunotherapy technologies, researchers and physicians are seeing results that are wholly unprecedented, and previously thought impossible in late stage cancer patients suffering from metastatic disease. At the edge of discovery, transformative results in small sample sets of patients are cause for unprecedented hope, for researchers, patients, and loved ones alike, and inspiring waves of new focused research into this area of study.

While any therapeutic approach that targets and modifies the immune system to fight cancer can be classified as an immunotherapy, several therapies have emerged as some of the most promising classes or groupings. Among them are:

Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors

An immunotherapy approach that blocks the ability of certain proteins, called immune checkpoints, to limit the strength and duration of immune responses. These proteins normally keep immune responses in check by preventing overly intense responses that might damage normal cells as well as abnormal cells. But, researchers have learned that tumors can commandeer these proteins and use them to suppress immune responses. Therefore, taking these "brakes" off the immune system allows it to kill cancer cells. [NCI]

Oncolytic Viruses

A type of virus that infects and lyses (breaks down) cancer cells but not normal cells. Oncolytic viruses can occur naturally or can be made in the laboratory by changing other viruses. Certain oncolytic viruses are being studied in the treatment of cancer. They may make it easier to kill tumor cells with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. [NCI]

Adoptive Cell Therapies or Transfers

Progress is being made with an experimental form of immunotherapy called adoptive cell transfer or therapy (ACT). In several small clinical trials testing ACT, some patients with very advanced cancer-primarily blood cancers-have had their disease completely eradicated. In some cases, these treatment responses have lasted for years. [NCI]

Monoclonal Antibodies

An antibody is a protein that sticks to a specific protein called an antigen. Antibodies circulate throughout the body until they find and attach to the antigen. Once attached, they can recruit other parts of the immune system to destroy the cells containing the antigen. Researchers can design antibodies that specifically target a certain antigen, such as the one found on cancer cells. They can then make many copies of that antibody in the lab. These are known as monoclonal antibodies (mAbs). As researchers have found more antigens linked to cancer, they have been able to make mAbs against more and more cancers. Clinical trials of newer mAbs are now being done on many types of cancer.

Cancer Vaccines

Cancer vaccines belong to a class of substances known as biological response modifiers. Biological response modifiers work by stimulating or restoring the immune system's ability to fight infections and disease. Treatment (or therapeutic) vaccines, which are intended to treat an existing cancer by strengthening the body's natural immune response against the cancer. [NCI]

The precision immunotherapy approach supported by IF is relatively simple:


Analyze the patient's immune system

Sample the patient's tumor for genetic testing to identify specific mutations

Identify ways to enhance the patient's immune system in a way that will target their tumor

Produce therapies (like drugs that use antibodies, or vaccines) that target the patient's tumor

Administer the therapies and allow the immune system to target and destroy cancerous cells

Benefits of Immunotherapy?


Unlike radiation, which is localized, immunotherapy considers the immune system more broadly.


Immunotherapy trains the immune system to identify and target cancer cells only.


Immunotherapy makes use of cell memory capabilities, which enables the immune system to continue to recognize and target cancer cells beyond initial treatment.

Fewer Side Effects

Because of its targeted nature, immunotherapy can have less of an impact on healthy cells, producing significantly fewer side effects.

Not Subject to Resistance

Unlike chemical treatments, immunotherapy is less subject to developing resistance from cancer cells.

The Future

With recent developments in our understanding of the human immune system, immunotherapy is more promising than ever.

IF supports leading scientists as they work, continually deepening this knowledge, and bringing us ever closer to a cure.

Our Research