Cancer immunotherapy treatment

Immunotherapies are a type of cancer treatment that uses the immune system to find and attack cancer cells.

There are different types of immunotherapy. You might hear this type of treatment described in different ways. Your cancer team might use the name of the drug. Or they might use a general term that describes how the drug works.

For example, your cancer team might call the drug nivolumab by its brand name, Opdivo®. Or they may also describe it as:

The following terms are often used to describe immunotherapy. We have more information about having immunotherapy treatment.

Monoclonal antibodies

All cells have receptors on their surface. Receptors help cells send or receive signals. A receptor is like a lock – only the right key will fit. Another cell or substance can only connect to the receptor if it is the right fit for that receptor.

Monoclonal antibodies are made so they can only connect to 1 type of receptor. Most monoclonal antibodies target receptors that are mainly found on cancer cells. Some monoclonal antibodies target receptors that are found on other cells in the body.

By connecting to the cell’s receptor, monoclonal antibody immunotherapies can help the body’s immune system by:

  • blocking signals that stop white blood cells attacking cancer cells (also called a checkpoint inhibitor)
  • connecting to cancer cells to help the immune system find and attack them.

Checkpoint inhibitors

Checkpoint inhibitors are a type of monoclonal antibody that affects lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell. They are an important part of the immune system.

When they are active, lymphocytes can attack another cell, such as a cancer cell. But if they receive a certain signal from the other cell, they switch off (become inactive) and do not attack it.

Checkpoint inhibitors block the signals that switch off lymphocytes. They do this by attaching to either the cancer cell or the lymphocyte. This means the lymphocyte stays active and can attack the cancer cell.

This treatment can cause immune system side effects. We have more information about immune system side effects.

Immune system modulators

Immune system modulators are immunotherapy drugs. They help the immune system attack and destroy cancer cells.

They are given as tablets. Types of immune system modulators include:

Other immune system modulators include artificial versions of proteins called interferon and interleukin. These proteins are normally made naturally in the body. They help control how the immune system works.

Interferon and interleukin are given by injection. They are not used very often because newer drugs have become available.

Cancer vaccines

Vaccines train the immune system to find and attack certain types of abnormal cells. They are commonly used to protect us from infections such as the flu, mumps or measles. Sometimes vaccines can be used to train the immune system to find and attack cancer cells.

Scientists and doctors are researching ways to make new vaccines that target cancer cells. They may be used to treat several types of cancer. They are usually only available as part of a clinical trial (research trial).

Booklets and resources

BCG vaccine and bladder cancer

The BCG vaccine is used to prevent the infection tuberculosis (TB). It is also used as a treatment for non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer. It is given directly into the bladder to stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells. This is called intravesical immunotherapy.

Adoptive cell transfer and CAR-T therapy

Adoptive cell transfer and CAR T-cell therapy use a person’s own white blood cells to find and destroy cancer cells. White blood cells usually fight infection.

This type of treatment can take several weeks to make and involves the following steps:

  • White blood cells are collected from your blood. This process is called leukapheresis.
  • The cells are sent to a laboratory that makes this type of therapy.
  • The cells are changed to help them recognise and attack cancer cells.
  • More of the changed cells are grown to make your treatment.
  • Your changed cells are sent back to the hospital where you will have the treatment.
  • You have the treatment as a single dose. This is usually through a drip into your vein.

Virus therapy to treat cancer

Virus therapy uses a virus that has been made or changed in a laboratory. The virus finds and infects the cancer cells. This treatment also trains the immune system to find and attack cancer cells.

A virus therapy called T-VEC (Imlygic®) is sometimes used to treat melanoma that has come back in the same area. Other types of cancer may be treated with virus therapies as part of a clinical trial (research trial).

Booklets and resources

Rajinder Nijjar


Lead Cancer Pharmacist

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 May 2024
Next review: 01 May 2026
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