Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment engineered to use your body’s immune system to fight cancer. It’s an effective option we use at the Markey Cancer Center to treat many types of cancer.

There are many different types of immunotherapy that target specific kinds of cancers. Immunotherapy can eliminate some early-stage cancers and improve quality of life and longevity for people with some advanced cancers. 

Markey is Kentucky’s first and only National Cancer Institute-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. We are at the forefront of immunotherapy research, offering patients access to the latest clinical trials and innovative treatment options. Our team of researchers is actively involved in developing new and improved immunotherapies to give patients the best possible chance of success. 

What is Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy isn’t a new kind of cancer treatment, though every day our researchers are investigating new ways of using it. The FDA approved the first immunotherapy vaccine to treat bladder cancer in 1990. 

Your immune system typically detects and destroys invading infections like viruses, bacteria, fungi, and invasive diseases. It looks for anything it doesn’t recognize as a normal part of the body and attacks it. 

But cancer cells start out as normal, healthy cells. This makes it easy to trick the immune system into letting cancer cells grow and multiply. The immune system doesn’t see those cells as foreign invaders. 

And even if the immune system recognizes cancer cells, it often can’t build up a strong enough defense against them. Cancer cells can also develop special proteins that turn off the immune system’s response. These proteins can even alter normal nearby cells so that they protect the cancer cells from the immune system. 

How Immunotherapy Works

Different types of immunotherapy help your immune system in their own ways. Immunotherapies may be used in combination with other treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Most immunotherapy drugs are given through an IV infusion. 

Some immunotherapies are considered standard treatments, while we offer others through clinical trials. The type of immunotherapy you may get will depend on the type of cancer, your overall health, and other factors. 

Types of immunotherapy we offer include:

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors: The immune system has a series of checkpoints, called immune checkpoint inhibitors. They keep it from responding too strongly to attack. Checkpoint inhibitors close off those checkpoints, allowing the immune system to mount a much stronger defense against cancer.
  • CAR T-cell (chimeric antigen receptor) therapy: T-cells are white blood cells that protect against infections. We take those cells from your blood and genetically engineer them in a lab so they can identify cancer cells. When they’re inserted back into your blood, they attach to cancer cells and kill them. Find out more about CAR T-cell therapy.
  • Cancer vaccines: Cancer vaccines are drugs we give to help the immune system prevent cancer. An example is the HPV vaccine, which protects against most types of cancer caused by human papillomavirus. Other cancer vaccines can treat certain cancers, including prostate and bladder cancers.
  • Monoclonal antibodies: These lab-created versions of proteins attach to and put “signs” on cancer cells. These signs make it easier for the immune system to find and destroy the cancer cells. 
  • Immune system modulators: Also called immunomodulators, these drugs boost the immune system’s defenses and block the creation of new cancer cells. They're often used to treat advanced cancers that have spread to other parts of the body. 

What Cancers Does Immunotherapy Treat?

Every cancer is unique and treatment needs to be as individualized as the cancer itself. Not all patients will benefit from immunotherapy. Before trying immunotherapy, we look for certain biomarkers. They offer clues that help us predict whether a cancer will respond to the drugs. 

Cancers we may treat with immunotherapy include:

Immunotherapy can have side effects, but many people have fewer side effects than they do with some other cancer treatments. You and your cancer team will decide together if the benefits of immunotherapy outweigh the side effects. Watch for changes and let your provider know if you experience any side effects. We may be able to prescribe medications to help with some side effects. 

Side effects include:

  • Rash, itching, and other skin problems
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, nausea, fatigue, and weakness
  • Diarrhea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Inflammation
  • Fluid retention
  • Heart palpitations
  • Rare, but serious, allergic reactions
NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center - A Cancer Center Designated by the National Cancer Institute

Markey Cancer Center is designated by the National Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center – a distinction that recognizes our commitment to accelerating precision cancer research and care to patients. We are the first and only NCI-Comprehensive Cancer Center in Kentucky, and one of 56 in the nation.