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Immunotherapy reinforces your body’s power to protect itself.

The immune system is your body’s complex defensive network, with over 20 trillion cells, proteins, and other substances to fight disease. They are on the lookout for bacteria, viruses, and other invaders — including cancer. However, because cancer cells are damaged cells created by your body and not a foreign invader such as a virus, your immune system doesn’t always recognize them as hostile. Immunotherapy — also called biological therapy or biological response modifier therapy — is a relatively new form of cancer treatment that stimulates your immune system to detect cancer cells and fight them more effectively.

Sending in reinforcements

Doctors often administer immunotherapy intravenously at hospitals or clinics, but in some cases you may be able to take shots or pills at home. Treatment schedules vary significantly depending on the type of treatment. Here are some widely used therapies:

Monoclonal antibodies: Some cancer cells are characterized by specific antigens — or proteins that appear on the cell’s surface. For this treatment, scientists create monoclonal antibodies specifically targeted at the cancer antigen. When they’re injected, the antibodies attach to the antigens and destroy the cancer cells or limit their reproduction.

You may receive the antibodies alone, or as carriers of other therapeutic substances. For instance, chemotherapy agents may be attached to monoclonal antibodies. This technique may help make chemotherapy more effective and reduce its side effects. The FDA has approved several monoclonal antibodies for use in cancer treatment.

Interferons: When your immune system is activated, your white blood cells manufacture interferons. Scientists can also create interferons in the lab to boost your immune response to cancer and prevent the growth of new cancerous cells. Interferons may also make other treatments more effective. The FDA has approved the use of interferon alpha for the treatment of certain cancers, including some blood cancers, melanoma, and AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Interleukins: These proteins, which occur naturally in the body and can be recreated in a lab, promote the growth of cancer-destroying cells and stimulate your white blood cells to fight cancer more actively. Interleukins are widely used as a therapy for melanoma and kidney cancer.

Colony-stimulating factors: These substances, also called hematopoietic growth factors, stimulate the growth of new immune cells. Your doctor may recommend them after chemotherapy or a stem cell transplant to help stimulate the creation of blood cells, reducing your risk for infections, anemia, or excessive bleeding.

Your defense network

Mounting evidence suggests that people may become especially susceptible to cancer when the immune system is not working as well as it should. What’s more, conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation sometimes weaken your immune system in the process of attacking tumor cells.

During biological therapy, doctors manipulate the cells of your immune system to invigorate its cancer-fighting abilities, or to help it rebound from some of the debilitating effects of other conventional treatment.

Immunotherapy can play various roles in the fight against cancer, including:

  • Stopping or limiting the processes that allow cancer cells to grow
  • Inhibiting the transformation of normal or precancerous cells into cancer
  • Making cancer cells easier for your immune system to recognize
  • Turning the cells in your immune system into more efficient cancer-fighters
  • Changing the way cancer cells grow to make them act more like normal cells
  • Stopping cancer cells from spreading to other parts of your body
  • Increasing your body’s capacity to fix the damage to healthy cells caused by other cancer treatments