Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2024 | Last updated: June 2024

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that aims to boost the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells. By harnessing the ability of the immune system, immunotherapies can attack cancers in a unique way.1,2

Immunotherapies used to treat blood cancer

Different types of immunotherapy are used to treat some blood cancers, including:1,2

How does immunotherapy work?

Each of the different types of immunotherapy work in a different way to boost the immune system.

Antibody therapy

Monoclonal antibodies used in blood cancer treatment are created in the lab to mimic the antibodies made in our bodies. Lab-made antibodies target specific areas of cancer cells to help block cancer growth or kill cancer cells. They may also be used to deliver chemotherapy drugs to cancer cells. Some monoclonal antibodies are referred to as a type of targeted therapy. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are monoclonal antibodies that help the immune system identify and attack cancer cells.1-3

Cytokine therapy

Cytokine therapy mimics the cytokines made in the body. Cytokines are substances that help the immune system work. Cytokine therapies used in the overall management of certain types of blood cancer may include interleukin-2 (IL-2), interferon, and/or granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF).1-3

Donor lymphocyte infusion

In some cases, donor lymphocyte infusion may be used as a follow-up procedure to a stem cell transplant. In donor lymphocyte infusion, lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) are collected from the donor who gave stem cells. They are then given to the person with blood cancer.1,2

CAR T-cell therapy

CAR T-cell therapy is one of the latest advances in immunotherapy. T-cells are a type of white blood cell that are responsible for fighting infections and cancer cells. However, many cancer cells evolve to slow or stop the normal T-cell response.3

With CAR T-cell therapy, the person's T-cells are removed from their blood. They are then genetically modified with receptors on their surface called chimeric antigen receptors (CAR). These receptors allow the T-cells to recognize and attach to a specific antigen (a type of protein) found on the surface of blood cancer cells. The engineered T-cells are replicated and then infused back into the person with cancer.3

What are the possible side effects?

Side effects can vary depending on the specific immunotherapy you receive. Some common side effects include:1

These are not all the possible side effects of immunotherapy. Talk to your doctor about what to expect when receiving immunotherapy. You also should call your doctor if you have any changes that concern you when undergoing immunotherapy.

Other things to know

To measure the amount of cancer cells in the blood or bone marrow, doctors may order:1

Before beginning treatment with immunotherapy, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. This includes over-the-counter drugs.

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Treatment results and side effects can vary from person to person. This treatment information is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Talk to your doctor about what to expect before starting and while taking any treatment.