The term “immunotherapy” covers a wide variety of treatments that use the natural defensive abilities of the human immune system to fight diseases. Cancer is capable of hiding from the immune system and even using it to support tumor growth. The goal of immunotherapy is to wake up the immune system so that it recognizes cancer and attacks the disease—just as it does with most bacteria or viruses.
Many of the key elements of immunotherapy have been around for decades. Interferon was discovered in the 1950s; the mechanisms of monoclonal antibodies have been understood since the 1970s. Both have been in use therapeutically since the 1980s.
However, the last decade has seen an explosion in the number, type, and effectiveness of immunotherapies. This spectacular growth results from critical advances in understanding of how genetic signals operate along molecular pathways to regulate the immune system and other basic functions.
There are five types of immunotherapy currently in use at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA): bone marrow transplants, T-cell therapies, antibody therapies, vaccines and cytokines. In many cases, these therapies are used in combination to attack cancer on multiple fronts.