Curious about immunotherapy? Learn more here

woman sitting in sunny field thinking

The human immune system is pretty amazing. Made up of cells, tissues and organs that work together, the immune system can hunt, find and destroy disease when it enters the body.

Our immune systems can find cancer cells, but cancer cells are pretty good at hiding or interfering with the system itself so that it stops working.

Immunotherapy is any type of treatment that involves using the person’s own immune system to fight against the cancer, and often can mean using antibodies to help the immune system identify cancer cells.

“Cancer cells hide or disguise themselves to avoid getting found and destroyed by the immune system,” says Dr. Mark Doherty, a medical oncologist at Odette Cancer Centre. “Modern immunotherapy drugs help peel the masks off those cancer cells so that they can be found and destroyed.”

Here are five things to know about immunotherapy:

There are many kinds of immunotherapy

Immunotherapy drugs can be used in many ways. It can:

  • stop or slow the growth of cancer
  • stop cancer from spreading to other parts of the body
  • help the immune system work better to destroy cancer cells
  • use modified immune cells targeted against cancer

It’s used to control cancer – not cure it

The goal of an immunotherapy treatment is to control the growth and spread of cancer.

“Many people with cancer can live for many years when on immunotherapy treatment,” Dr. Doherty said.

Immunotherapy isn’t for everyone

“Unfortunately, not every person’s immune system or every cancer responds well to immunotherapy,” Dr. Doherty said. Some types of cancers, for example lung cancer and melanoma, tend to respond well to immunotherapy treatments, but it’s important to note that every individual is different and therefore, everyone responds differently to the treatment. Research is ongoing as to why immunotherapy works better for some cancers than others.

There are lots of trials and research in immunotherapy

While this kind of treatment has been around for a number of years, new drugs and new combinations are being developed and studied all the time.

“For example, a trial recently looked at combining an immunotherapy drug and a chemotherapy drug for patients with small cell lung cancer with good results,” Dr. Doherty said. “That’s very exciting because there hasn’t been any real advances in treating this type of cancer for around 30 years.”

Many treatments aren’t yet covered by OHIP

“As is the case for any new treatment that becomes available, it takes some time for the system to catch up, particularly if the new treatment or drug is expensive,” Dr. Doherty said. “We do have access to many immunotherapy drugs through compassionate access or expanded access programs. If you have any questions about trials or access, and if immunotherapy could be right for you, talk to your oncologist.”

About the author


Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.