The immune system is an elaborate network of cells and organs that protect the body from infection.  The immune system is also part of the body’s innate disease-fighting capability to treat cancer.  With cancer, part of the problem is an ineffective immune system. The immune system recognizes cancer cells as foreign and up to a point can get rid of them or keep them in check.  Cancer cells are very good at finding ways to hide from, suppress, or wear out the immune system and avoid immune destruction.  The immune system may not attack cancer cells because it fails to recognize them as foreign and harmful.

Our immune systems work around the clock protecting our bodies from “foreign” substances such as bacteria, and viruses.  We know that this immune “surveillance” also protects us from cancer, by recognizing a cell that has become cancerous as something foreign. When this surveillance system fails, cancers begin to grow.

Immunotherapy seeks to utilize a person’s own immune response to treat their cancer.  The goal of immunotherapy is to help the immune system recognize and eliminate cancer cells by either activating the immune system directly, or by inhibiting mechanisms of suppression of the cancer.

Stimulating the immune system to attack unwanted substances in the body is not a new concept; vaccines, which have traditionally been used to prevent infectious diseases such as measles and the flu, work in this way. What is new, is applying this idea to cancer treatment with the development of precision immunotherapies that stimulate the immune system to attack a specific individuals cancer.

Kinds of Immunotherapy

General types of immunotherapy include interferon, interleukin, and colony stimulating factors (cytokines), which generally activate the immune system to attack the cancer. These general immunotherapies however are not specific and their activation of the immune system can cause severe side effects by attacking normal cells along with cancer cells.  Immunotherapy treatment of cancer has progressed considerably over the past 30 years and has evolved from a general to more precisely targeted immunotherapy treatment. Examples of precision immunotherapy include checkpoint inhibitors, CAR T cells, and vaccines. Learn more here:

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