What is immunotherapy?
Cancer may develop when the immune system breaks down or is not functioning adequately. Immunotherapy (also called biological therapy and biotherapy) uses the body's immune system to fight cancer.
Common types of immunotherapy include:
- Monoclonal antibodies: These are man-made versions of immune system proteins. Antibodies can be very useful in treating cancer because they can be designed to attack a very specific part of a cancer cell.
- Cancer vaccines: Vaccines are substances designed to trigger an immune response in the body against certain diseases.
- Non-specific immunotherapies: These treatments stimulate the immune system in a general way to increase activity against cancer cells. Some examples include man-made versions of cytokines, a chemical in immune cells, such as interleukins and interferons.
Immunotherapy may also be used to reduce the side effects caused by some cancer treatments.
Immunotherapy for melanoma
Certain drugs, such as imiquimod or BCG vaccine, can boost the body’s natural immune response against melanoma tumors, and may be applied to or injected directly into the melanoma tumor. Alpha-interferon, interleukin-2 (IL-2), and ipilimumab are used to treat some cases of advanced stage melanoma, and stimulate the immune system to atatck melanoma cells.
Ipilimumab (Yervoy™) is a form of cancer immunotherapy approved by the FDA for the treatment of metastatic melanoma. Ipilimumab is a monoclonal antibody that targets CTLA-4, a protein that helps to regulate the immune system by suppressing the activity of T cells. By blocking the action of CTLA-4, Ipilimumab acts to take the brakes off the immune system, allowing it to fight the cancer cells. This agent is used to treat melanoma that has spread or that cannot be treated by surgery.
In a clinical trial, ipilimumab helped some patients with metastatic melanoma to live longer. However, this form of immunotherapy can also lead to serious immune-related side effects in the intestines, liver, hormone-producing glands, eyes, nerves, skin and other organs, so your doctors at CTCA may discuss whether this drug is right for you. If it is, your CTCA care team will work with you to reduce or prevent these potentially serious side effects.