How Immunotherapy Works

Important to Know: 

  • Our immune system does recognize and attack cancer cells
  • Cancer cells develop ways of escaping from or hiding from the immune system
  • There are many approaches to boosting or enhancing the immune response to cancer
  • Many of these approaches work by activating T cells or strengthening their ability to fight the cancer

We know that the immune system does recognize cancer cells as unhealthy or abnormal and often tries to fight the tumor. 

The goal of the field of immuno-oncology, also known as tumor immunology, is to understand exactly how the immune system interacts with the cancer, and then use that information to develop new immunotherapy treatments.

Dr. Schuchter: How Does Immunotherapy


The key to successful immunotherapy is to make sure that the immune system can detect the presence of cancer cells, identify them as abnormal and mount a defense against them. This means:

IDENTIFYING specific ways in which cancer cells are different from normal cells. These differences are found on the surface of cells. Identifying these differences creates the possibility of developing immunotherapies that target them

UNDERSTANDING the ways in which cancer cells “put the brakes” on or escape detection from the immune system and finding ways to block this from happening

STIMULATING specific parts of the immune system, usually blood cells, to take a more active role in killing cancer cells

BLOCKING the growth factors that allow cancer cells to grow rapidly

CARRYING cancer drugs directly to cancer cells.  

Matthew: My Experience With Immunotherapy

   Suzanne, Nurse Practitioner: How Is
 Immunotherapy Different from Chemotherapy?

Updated August 12, 2014