Types of Cancer Immunotherapy Can Treat

Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that helps your own immune system beat cancer. That’s different than traditional chemotherapy, which uses drugs that kill both cancer and healthy cells.

Each type of cancer is unique. Immunotherapy doesn’t work for all types of cancer or for all people with cancer. But doctors continue to test new treatments.

Some types of immunotherapy have become a standard part of treatment for certain types of cancer. Doctors may use it:

  • Before other types of treatment
  • Alone or with other types of treatment such as chemotherapy
  • If other types of treatment fail, such as for cancers that are resistant to treatment

 

Cancers That Immunotherapy Can Treat

Immunotherapy treatments have been approved or are being tested for more than 20 kinds of cancers:

Bladder cancer. Today, there are six FDA-approved options for bladder cancer. They include:

  • Targeted antibodies. This type of treatment disrupts cancer cells and alerts the immune system to target and kill them.
  • Cancer vaccines. They help your body kill or stop cancer cells or keep them from coming back.
  • Immune system modulators, which boost your overall immune response. Checkpoint inhibitors are one example.

Brain cancer. There are two approved types of targeted antibodies for brain and nervous system cancers. Researchers are testing several others in clinical trials to find out if immunotherapy might work where other treatments have failed.

Breast cancer. At first, doctors thought immunotherapy was a poor option for breast cancer. But newer studies suggest that certain women may benefit from it. They include women who make too much of a protein receptor called HER2. Several types of targeted antibodies take aim at the HER2 pathway. In 2019, the FDA also approved the first checkpoint inhibitor for breast cancer.

Cervical cancer. Doctors use three cancer vaccines to treat cervical cancer. The FDA also approved one checkpoint inhibitor and one monoclonal antibody, a type of targeted therapy.

Childhood cancer. There are several approved immunotherapy options for childhood cancer, such as certain types of leukemia, lymphoma, and brain cancer. These include:

  • Targeted antibodies
  • Checkpoint inhibitors
  • Adoptive cell therapy such as CAR T-cell therapy, where your own T-cells are genetically modified to help your immune system find and destroy cancer cells

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Colorectal cancer. Several targeted therapies and checkpoint inhibitors are used for this cancer. These may work best for patients with certain genetic traits.

Esophageal cancer. The FDA has approved two targeted therapies and one checkpoint inhibitor for this type of cancer. Researchers are looking at these ways to unleash immunotherapy against esophageal cancer:

  • Use it before other types of treatment.
  • Combine it with other therapies.
  • Try to keep it from coming back.

Head and neck cancer. Immunotherapy may be especially helpful for people with human papillomavirus (HPV)-related head and neck cancers. It may also help avoid the intense side effects of other types of treatment. The FDA has approved one targeted antibody and two checkpoint inhibitors for these cancers.

Kidney cancer. Researchers are paying a lot of attention to this cancer. The first options used for kidney cancer were targeted therapies and cytokines, which are proteins made by white blood cells that spur your immune system to kill cancer cells. The FDA has also approved a monoclonal antibody and checkpoint inhibitors.

Leukemia. There are several approved immunotherapy options for this blood cancer. These include:

  • Targeted antibodies
  • Adoptive cell therapy
  • Cytokines

Liver cancer. The hepatitis virus is a major cause of this cancer. The hepatitis B vaccine was the first vaccine developed to prevent cancer. We don’t have a vaccine yet for hepatitis C (HCV). But antiviral drugs that treat HCV may keep liver cancer from starting. Doctors can also use two types of checkpoint inhibitors for this cancer.

Lung cancer. Immunotherapy, used alone or with other types of treatment, has made a big difference for people with cancer in their lungs. Today, targeted therapies and checkpoint inhibitors may even be used ahead of treatments such as chemotherapy.

Lymphoma. Immunotherapy is used to treat this blood cancer for adults and children. This includes:

  • Targeted antibodies
  • Checkpoint inhibitors
  • Cytokines
  • Adoptive cell therapy

Melanoma. Checkpoint inhibitors raise survival rates for some people with an advanced form of this skin cancer. Doctors sometimes also use cytokines and oncolytic virus therapy for this type of cancer.

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Multiple myeloma. Several monoclonal antibodies are used to treat this blood cancer. Doctors may use them after a stem cell transplant to help keep cancer at bay.

Ovarian cancer. One monoclonal antibody is available now. But many immunotherapy trials are underway for this type of deadly cancer.

Pancreatic cancer. This cancer has few good treatments. Researchers are working hard to explore immunotherapy in trials. In the meantime, doctors may use a checkpoint inhibitor for patients whose cancer cells have certain genetic traits.

Prostate cancer. A cancer vaccine and a checkpoint inhibitor are available to treat some advanced cases of prostate cancer.

Sarcoma. This is a rare kind of cancer that starts in your bones or soft tissue. One type of monoclonal antibody is used to treat sarcoma. As with many cancers, more research is needed to better understand how other immunotherapies might help.

Skin cancer. Early skin cancers often respond well to traditional cancer treatments such as surgery. But advanced cases may benefit from immunotherapy. The FDA has approved several checkpoint inhibitors for skin cancers, including melanoma.

Stomach cancer. This is also called a gastric cancer. A checkpoint inhibitor and two targeted antibodies are approved to treat advanced cases of stomach or gastroesophageal cancer in certain people.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 31, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

National Cancer Institute: “Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer.”

UC San Diego Health: “Types of Immunotherapy.”

Cancer Research UK: “Types of cancer immunotherapy.”

National Cancer Institute: “Immune System Modulators.”

Cancer Research Institute: “Benefits of Cancer Immunotherapy,” “Immunotherapy by Cancer Type,” “Immunotherapy Treatment Types.”

American Cancer Society: “The Current and Future Promise of Immunotherapy for Childhood Cancer,” “Immunotherapy for Pancreatic Cancer.”

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