When It Comes to Cancer, Immunotherapy May Fill the Void Your Body Lacks

Boosting the Immune System to Fight Cancer

Author: Jasmine Brown

Man Taking Medication

"With immunotherapy, we can work on targeting and destroying those cancer cells that are growing rapidly and creating the cancer."


The journey of figuring out how to use the immune system to treat cancer started in the late 1800s, and now two centuries later, immunotherapy – a treatment that enhances the body’s complex network of cells and proteins – is emerging as one of the newer forms of cancer treatment.

“Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy,” explained David Eilender, MD, medical oncologist and hematologic specialist at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint. “We use drugs or genetically modify cells to boost the immune system to identify and attack cancerous cells.”

Our immune system is like a large team made up of defenders: white blood cells, antibodies, the complement system, the lymphatic system, the spleen, the thymus, and bone marrow. This team not only fights infections, but they ward off altered cells that may become cancerous.

But sometimes, there are failures.

“Naturally, your immune system would fight off diseases, including the growth of cancer, destroying the abnormal cells. When a cancer does form, your immune system just couldn’t keep up. With immunotherapy, we can work on targeting and destroying those cancer cells that are growing rapidly and creating the cancer,” said Dr. Eilender.

With immunotherapy, medical oncologists use substances made from living organisms inside the body to create a drug that stimulates the immune system. The drug uses the body’s natural defense to fight cancer, slow down the growth and spread of the tumor, and uses proteins to enhance the normal immune system functions.

Types of Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy drugs can be given directly into a vein (intravenously), injected into the muscle, intravesical (administered directly into the bladder), or it can be applied as a topical (for example, to treat early skin cancer). There are five main types of immunotherapy that the medical oncologists in Flint specialize in:

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that block immune checkpoints. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the drugs allow for your immune cells to respond to cancer stronger then when the checkpoints are fully functioning. Normally, checkpoints keep your immune response from being too strong and harming healthy cells.
  • Vaccines for cancer treatment are different than vaccines used to fight a virus. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), immunotherapy vaccines are used to fight a disease that already exists within the body. They are often made of cancer cells, parts of cancer cells, or proteins that are on the cancer cells. The vaccines can also be made from the patient’s immune cells and combined with the previous listed ingredients.
  • Cell-based therapy, also known as T-cell transfer therapy requires the growth of immune cells outside of the body. One example of this therapy is chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy. CAR-T therapy uses a cancer patient’s own white blood cells, which are genetically modified to recognize and attack the patient’s cancer cells. This is a one-time treatment, and the goal is to put the patient’s disease in remission.
  • Monoclonal antibodies are proteins created in a lab. Some monoclonal antibodies recognize and target cancer cells so that the immune system may destroy the cancerous cells, while other monoclonal antibodies bring T-cells to cancer cells so they may kill the cancerous cells.
  • Immune system modulators are drugs that boost your immune system’s response against cancer by targeting specific parts of the immune system or affecting the immune system in a more general way.

These treatments may also be used in combination with another immunotherapy.

“Depending on the patient’s cancer case, we may need to combine immunotherapy treatment with chemotherapy, or coordinate with a surgical or radiation oncologist here at Karmanos for further treatments,” said Dr. Eilender.

Benefits of Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy gives patients longer survival rates with a better quality of life and fewer side effects. A patient’s cancer treatment plan may require them to come for treatment less than with other cancer treatments. The use of immunotherapy may be better tolerated for some patients, including older patients.

Cancers That Can Be Treated with Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy has been used to treat a number of cancers, including but not limited to:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Neck cancer
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • Stomach cancer

“Though immunotherapy may be used to treat a number of cancers, we have to make sure the treatment is right for the patient and their particular case,” Dr. Eilender explained.  “It is important for patients to be tested to make sure they are a candidate for immunotherapy before starting treatments.”

For more information about drug therapy treatments available in Flint, visit karmanos.org/flintmedonc.