Immunotherapy overview

Immunotherapy is a dramatic shift in how we fight cancer. It’s not chemotherapy, radiation or surgery. Instead, it is a therapy that uses the power of your body’s own immune system to find and destroy cancer cells. Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) physicians and researchers are leaders in discovering new ways to give your immune system the upper hand against cancer — making immunotherapy the science behind hope.

What is immunotherapy?

Your immune system’s job is to protect your body against foreign invaders, like bacteria and tumors. Cancer can hide from the immune system and even trick the immune cells into helping — rather than harming — the tumors.

Immunotherapy uses your immune system’s own fighting power to attack cancer cells. The body becomes part of the solution — it helps your immune system fight cancer and put it back in control.

Immunotherapy can be used on its own or along with traditional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Immunotherapy offers doctors and patients a new and powerful treatment option.

Frequently asked questions

The term “immunotherapy” covers a wide variety of treatments that use the natural defensive abilities of the human immune system to fight diseases. The following are frequently asked questions on immunotherapy, how our immune system works and how these things combine to provide better outcomes in cancer treatment. 

How does the immune system work?

Our immune system is a complex array of defenses that evolved to protect our bodies from foreign invaders. Infectious organisms such as bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses all have specific molecular targets called “antigens,” which are recognized by the immune system. But allergens (like pollen) and foreign proteins (from improperly matched transfusions, transplants, or biological medicines) can also serve as antigens that trigger an immune response.

How does cancer fool the immune system?

Cancer is a genetic disease. It occurs when damaged DNA sends out faulty signals along one or more biomolecular pathways, causing tumor cells to grow out of control. Because the invasion of tumor cells is homegrown rather than foreign, an immune response is often not effectively triggered. In some cases, despite antigens present on growing tumors, the immune response is not strong enough to destroy the cancer. In addition, cancers have developed defenses of their own. For example, some cancers can secrete the precise chemicals that signal our bodies to shut down the immune response.

To further complicate matters, the immune system remains vigilant if we attempt to introduce healthy tissue from another person that is intended to help patients fight their cancer. Treatments such as blood and marrow transplants (also called bone marrow transplants or stem cell transplants) must pay strict attention to tissue compatibility. Otherwise, the body will mount an immune response — in effect, rejecting the cure while protecting the disease.

What is immunotherapy?

The term “immunotherapy” covers a wide variety of treatments that use the natural defensive abilities of our own immune system to fight diseases. The immune system made up of white blood cells, organs and tissues of the lymph system, helps the body fight infections and other diseases. Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy, which uses substances made from living organisms to treat cancer.

How does immunotherapy work?

Cancer is capable of hiding from the immune system and even using it to support tumor growth. The goal of immunotherapy is to make sure the immune system detects cancer and attacks the disease — just as it does with most bacteria or viruses.

Is immunotherapy new?

Many of the key elements of immunotherapy have been around for decades. In fact, SCCA has known the promise of immunotherapy ever since Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s pioneering work in blood and marrow transplantation began more than 40 years ago.

However, the last decade has seen an explosion in the number, type and effectiveness of immunotherapies.

Are there different types of immunotherapy?

There are five types of immunotherapy currently in use at SCCA: blood and marrow transplants, CAR T-cell therapies, antibody therapies, vaccines and cytokines. In many cases, these therapies are used in combination to attack cancer on multiple fronts.

How effective is immunotherapy?

Please keep in mind that immunotherapy therapies are not yet available for all types of cancer and, where available, they are effective only for a percentage of patients. But optimism remains that these options will become more widely available as physicians and researchers find more ways to apply these therapies to treatment plans.

If you are a patient or helping advise a cancer patient, we hope this information will enable you to ask good questions and have a more productive conversation with your provider or care team.

How can I get immunotherapy as part of my treatment?

Immunotherapy is not yet as widely used as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. However, immunotherapies have been approved to treat people with many types of cancer. To learn about immunotherapies that may be used to treat your cancer, ask your provider and care team.

Immunotherapy Long-Term Follow-Up Program

If you received immunotherapy treatment from the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic and have questions related to your treatment that your local doctor can’t answer, our Long-Term Follow-Up (LTFU) program is here to help. Our doctors will work with you and your local team to care for you. We will also gather information from you to help us prevent and treat any long-term effects of immunotherapy.

You may contact us at any time by email or phone. Messages are assigned priority according to the urgency and the order in which they are received. In general, most messages receive a response within three business days. Please be aware that the response time depends on the volume and nature of the messages received. 


Monday to Friday, 8 am–4 pm (Pacific Time)

If you have a medical emergency, call 9-1-1. 
SCCA President Dr. Nancy Davidson discusses the latest in immunotherapy with Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic Medical Director Dr. David Maloney.

How does it work?

The two leading forms of immunotherapy based on research from SCCA are cellular immunotherapy and immune checkpoint inhibitors

Cellular immunotherapy involves taking immune cells from your body and replacing them back into your body in large numbers to help your immune system fight cancer.

CAR T-cell therapy is a form of cellular immunotherapy that uses modified T-cells to attack cancer cells. A sample of T-cells is taken from your body and re-engineered in a lab setting to produce chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). When they are reinfused into your body as CAR T-cells, they’re able to recognize cancer cells and fight them.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors work by teaching immune cells to target and attack the pathways where cancer grows. Tumor cells can hide themselves by sending false signals to immune cell “checkpoints” so that they look harmless. Checkpoint inhibitor drugs block these false signals, so the immune system isn’t tricked into ignoring tumors.

“Immunotherapy can range from a drug to boost the immune system to re-engineering immune cells to fight cancer. These therapies show great promise, often in cases where cancer has been very advanced and where other known therapies have failed.”
— David G. Maloney, MD, PhD, Medical Director, Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic

Clinical trials

Many of the key elements of immunotherapy have been around for decades. In fact, SCCA has known the promise of immunotherapy ever since our alliance partner, Fred Hutch, led the way in blood and bone marrow transplantation — an early form of immunotherapy — over 40 years ago. Our world-class doctors are using immunotherapy research to bring a better reality to our patients, providing the therapies of tomorrow, today. Below is a link of immunotherapy clinical trials that are currently open and accepting patients at SCCA.

“I was one of the first participants in a lung cancer immunotherapy drug trial at SCCA. Not only did that trial lead to the drug being available for future patients, but it saved my life.”
— Sunshine Pegues, Lung cancer patient

Saving lives with exceptional science

Many of the world’s immunotherapy experts are based at SCCA. We are leaders in turning scientific discovery into exciting new treatments that are changing the way cancer is treated. Our groundbreaking research is the foundation for many of the FDA-approved immunotherapies used across the country today.

Through our unique alliance with Fred Hutch, Seattle Children’s and UW Medicine, we are able to bring our knowledge from the lab to the bedside, giving SCCA patients faster access to exceptional science.

Leading experts

Patients at SCCA are taken care of by doctors, advanced practice providers, and registered nurses who specialize in immunotherapy and are among the best in the nation. Through SCCA, you have access to the latest therapies and treatments. Our team of doctors, advanced practice providers and specialists meets regularly to discuss each patient’s treatment options.

Request an appointment

To learn about immunotherapies that may be used to treat your cancer, ask your provider and care team.

Telehealth consultations are available

At our clinic we have thorough safety measures in place to protect you, your caregivers and our staff. We also understand that sometimes it is not possible to come to an in-person visit. That is why we are pleased to offer telehealth consultations if you are eligible. 

We are committed to easing any anxiety around a telehealth visit if this is new for you. Prior to your appointment we will provide detailed instructions to help you familiarize yourself before you meet with your care team. Ask about telehealth when making an appointment to see if it is an option for you.