Understanding how cancer immunotherapy works

3 min read


What is cancer immunotherapy & how does it work, exactly?

To understand how cancer immunotherapy works, let’s start with the basics. Your body has an immune system that protects you from bacteria, viruses and other unwanted intruders. In the body, your immune system creates T cells (a type immune system cell) to identify and destroy these abnormal cells.


Cancer cells have molecules on them that trigger T cells to attack, called antigens. Some cancer cells, however, can hide from the immune system because they look a lot like normal cells. Cancer cells may also stop the immune system from working properly.


Cancer immunotherapy works by helping the body’s own immune system fight certain kinds of cancers, such as skin and lung cancers.


Immuno-oncology researchers have developed strategies to help make the cancer cells “visible” to the immune system. Cancer immunotherapy can also help to strengthen the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.


A closer look at the different types of cancer immunotherapies

Adoptive T cell transfer (also called CAR-T cell therapy)

To develop this type of cancer immunotherapy, T cells are removed from a person living with cancer, genetically modified to recognize and attach to a specific protein, or antigen, on the cancer cell and then reintroduced into the blood. This helps the immune system recognize and fight the cancer.


Checkpoint inhibitors

T cells have “checkpoint proteins”on their surface that can either turn an immune response on or off. Some cancer cells make a lot of proteins that turn off the T cells that should be attacking the cancer, tricking the immune system so that cancer cells are no longer recognized.


Checkpoint inhibitors help fight cancer by blocking the checkpoint proteins so the immune system can recognize and attack the cancer.


Monoclonal antibodies

Monoclonal antibodies can target certain antigens on the surface of cancer cells when injected. They help your immune system to attack the cancer directly.


Simply put, cancer immunotherapy can be an effective treatment option for patients.

If you would like more information about skin melanoma, speak with your doctor.