Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital

Immunotherapy/Biological Therapy

Immunotherapy/Biological Therapy

What is biological therapy?

Biological therapy (also called immunotherapy, biological response modifier therapy, or biotherapy) uses the body's immune system to fight cancer. The cells, antibodies, and organs of the immune system work to protect and defend the body against foreign invaders, such as bacteria or viruses. Doctors and researchers have found that the immune system might also be able to both determine the difference between healthy cells and cancer cells in the body, and to eliminate the cancer cells. (By itself, the immune system is not always good at destroying cancer cells; if it were, people would not get cancer.)

Biological therapies are designed to boost the immune system, either directly or indirectly, by assisting in the following:

How can the immune system fight cancer?

The immune system includes different types of white blood cells--each with a different way to fight against foreign or diseased cells, including cancer:

These types of white blood cells--B cells, T cells, natural killer cells, and monocytes--are in the blood and circulate to every part of the body, providing protection from cancer and other diseases. White blood cells secrete two types of substances: antibodies and cytokines. Antibodies respond to harmful substances that they recognize, called antigens. Specific (helpful) antibodies match specific (foreign) antigens by locking together. Cytokines are proteins produced by some immune system cells that attract other immune system cells or that may directly attack cancer cells. Cytokines are messengers that communicate with other cells.

What are the different types of biological therapies?

There are many different types of biological therapies used in cancer treatment.

Biological response modifiers (BRMs) change the way the body's defenses interact with cancer cells. BRMs are produced naturally in the body and in a laboratory and given to patients to:

BRMs include substances like nonspecific immunomodulating agents, interferons, interleukins, colony-stimulating factors, monoclonal antibodies, and vaccines:

Are there side effects of biological therapies?

As each person's medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any or all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins.

Side effects of biological therapy vary according to the type of therapy given and may include the following:

Specifically, interleukins and interferons often cause flulike symptoms, such as fever, chills, aches, and fatigue. Other side effects may include a rash or swelling at the injection site. Monoclonal antibodies sometimes cause allergic reactions. Some treatment can cause fatigue and bone pain and may affect blood pressure and the heart.

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