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. Immunotherapy is a type of biologic therapy, and it is sometimes referred to as biologic therapy. Biologic therapies are those which are made from living substances.1,2

Immunotherapies used to treat blood cancer

There are different types of immunotherapy that are used to treat certain blood cancers, including:

How immunotherapy works

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

  • Monoclonal antibodies are created in the lab to mimic the antibodies that are produced by the body. They target specific areas of cancer cells, to help block cancer growth or kill cancer cells, or may be used to deliver chemotherapy medications to cancer cells. Certain monoclonal antibodies may also be referred to as a type of targeted therapy. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are monoclonal antibodies that help enable the immune system to identify and attack cancer cells.
  • Cytokine therapy mimics the cytokines produced in the body. Cytokines are substances that help the functioning of the immune system. Cytokine therapies used to treat certain types of blood cancer include interleukin-2 (IL-2), interferon, and granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF).
  • Donor lymphocyte infusion may be used in certain cases as a follow-up procedure to stem cell transplantation. In donor lymphocyte infusion, lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) are collected from the donor who gave stem cells and given to the recipient with blood cancer.1,2
  • 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. With CAR T-cell therapy, the patient’s T-cells are removed from their blood and are genetically modified with receptors on their surface, referred to as 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 patient.3

Side effects of immunotherapy

Like all treatments, immunotherapies can cause side effects, and some side effects may be serious. Side effects are specific to the exact medication or therapy that is being used. Not everyone experiences the same side effects, and different individuals may experience varying levels of severity. Most side effects from immunotherapies are temporary and tend to go away after treatment is completed. Communication between patients and their health care team is critical, and any side effects experienced should be brought to the attention of a doctor.

Common side effects from certain immunotherapies include reactions at the injection site, including pain, swelling, redness, itchiness, or rash. Other common side effects from certain immunotherapies include:

Patients should talk to their doctor if they have any questions, or if they have questions regarding their immunotherapy regimen. Before starting treatment with immunotherapy, patients should tell their doctor about all their health conditions, as well as any medications (prescription and over-the-counter), herbal supplements, and vitamins they are taking.

These are not all the possible side effects of immunotherapy. Patients should talk to their doctor about what to expect with treatment with immunotherapy.

How to tell if immunotherapy is working

To determine the effectiveness of immunotherapy, doctors may order blood tests, bone marrow biopsies, or imaging tests to measure the amount of cancer cells in the blood or bone marrow.1

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Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: October 2020