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Cancer immunotherapy treatments

There are several different approaches to
cancer immunotherapy

Download this list of clinical trial terms to help stay informed.

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Wherever you are on your cancer treatment journey, you may want information on the types of immunotherapy available today. Here we provide a description of some of the different approaches to cancer immunotherapy and how they are used to treat a wide variety of cancers.

The following tables provide helpful specifics on the various types of

immunotherapies, along with some representative treatments

Please note that these tables do not include all cancer immunotherapies currently available, but
represent some promising approaches that are currently approved by the FDA or being tested in clinical trials.

Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) are specifically designed to target cancer cells

What is it called? 

How does it work?

For which cancers is it currently used or being studied?

Monoclonal antibodies (mAb)

 

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  • mAbs are a special type of protein designed to target antigens, or markers, located on the surface of cancer cells

  • Antibodies locate antigens and recruit immune cells to attack

  • mAbs can also interfere with cell signaling, helping to block growth and communication of tumor cells

Immunotherapy mAbs are approved by the FDA for a wide range of cancers including:

  • Breast (Herceptin®, Kadcyla®, Perjeta®

  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Adcetris®)

  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Rituxan®, Zevalin®)

  • Colorectal (Avastin®, Erbitux®, Vectibix®)

  • Lung (Avastin®, Cyramza®)

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (Gazyva®, Campath®, Rituxan®, Arzerra®)

  • Gastric (Herceptin®, Cyramza®)

  • Kidney (Avastin®)

  • Brain (Avastin®)

  • Cervical (Avastin®)

  • Ovarian (Avastin®)

  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (Blincyto®)
     

Several mAbs are currently in clinical trials for a wide variety of cancer types:

  • Bavituximab (breast, liver, lung, melanoma, pancreatic, rectal)

  • Ch14.18 (neuroblastoma)

  • Rilotumumab (fallopian, gastric, ovarian)

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Checkpoint inhibitors/immune modulators can make cancer cells more susceptible to attack by your immune system 

What is it called? 

How does it work?

For which cancers is it currently used or being studied?

Checkpoint inhibitors/immune modulators
 

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  • Some proteins in immune cells act as "checkpoints,” or brakes, on the immune system response

  • Drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors can be used to “release the brakes” on the immune system, allowing a stronger immune attack against cancer

  • If checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that let up on the brakes of the immune system, then immune modulators are drugs that "step on the gas" of the immune response

Checkpoint inhibitors:

  • CTLA-4 inhibitors: Yervoy® is currently approved by the FDA for the treatment of melanoma and is being studied for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer and prostate cancer; another CTLA-4 inhibitor, tremelimumab, is also being studied in melanoma and mesothelioma

  • PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitors: Keytruda® and Opdivo® are currently approved by the FDA for the treatment of melanoma after failing prior treatment with Yervoy. Opdivo® is also FDA approved for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer. Other PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitors include MPDL3280A and MEDI4736, and have shown important benefits in patients with advanced melanoma, lung cancer, kidney cancer, and a number of other cancers

  • Other checkpoint inhibitors, including ones targeting the immune proteins LAG-3 and KIR, are currently in clinical development

Immune modulators:

  • Immune modulators that are currently in clinical development include drugs targeting the immune proteins CD137/4-1BB, CD27, GITR, and OX40

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Therapeutic cancer vaccines stimulate the immune system to attack cancer

What is it called? 

How does it work?

For which cancers is it currently used or being studied?

Therapeutic cancer vaccines
 

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  • Therapeutic cancer vaccines trigger the immune system to recognize and attack certain markers, or antigens, present on or in cancer cells

  • Unlike preventive vaccines, which help to prevent disease, therapeutic cancer vaccines treat disease that is already there

  • There are many different types of therapeutic cancer vaccines. Some are made of individual proteins; others are made of whole cells. One promising type is made of antigen-presenting cells called dendritic cells

  • Cancer vaccines often require additional substances called adjuvants for optimal effectiveness

The therapeutic cancer vaccine Provenge® is currently approved by the FDA to treat prostate cancer.

Therapeutic cancer vaccines are also being studied for treatment of the following cancers:

  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and mantle cell lymphoma (BioVaxID)

  • Breast (NeuVax)

  • Brain (DCVax, CDX-110) 

  • Pancreatic (GVAX Pancreas, HyperAcute™ Pancreas)

  • Colorectal (Imprime PGG®)

  • And many more

 
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Oncolytic virus immununotherapy uses a modified virus that can both cause tumor cells to self destruct and activate a greater immune response

What is it called? 

How does it work?

For which cancers is it currently used or being studied?

Oncolytic virus immunotherapy
 

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  • Oncolytic viruses are viruses that directly kill (“lyse”) cancer cells and can also activate cells of the immune system, such as dendritic cells and T cells, to target and eliminate cancer throughout the body

  • Sometimes, oncolytic viruses are genetically modified to produce immune-stimulating chemicals, or to make them more specific for cancer cells

  • Oncolytic virus immunotherapies are often combined with other types of cancer immunotherapies, including therapeutic cancer vaccines and mAb therapy

 

No oncolytic virus immunotherapy is FDA approved.

Oncolytic virus immunotherapies are currently being studied in clinical trials for a number of cancers, including:

  • CG0070 (bladder)

  • Reolysin (prostate, colorectal, ovarian, lung, and breast)

  • CAVATAK (melanoma)

  • JX-594 (ovarian)

  • MV-NIS (multiple myeloma)

  • T-VEC (melanoma)

  • And many more

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Adoptive T cell transfer can enhance the natural cancer-fighting ability of your body’s T cells

What is it called? 

How does it work?

For which cancers is it currently used or being studied?

Adoptive T cell transfer
 

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Adoptive T cell transfer is an anti-cancer approach that enhances the natural cancer-fighting ability of the body’s T cells by removing immune system cells, growing and/or making changes to them outside of the body, and then re-infusing them back into the patient.

There are 3 different approaches to adoptive T cell transfer:

  • T cells can be collected from a sample of a patient’s tumor and multiplied in a laboratory

  • T cells can be taken out of the body and genetically modified to attack antigens on cancer cells

  • T cells can be taken out of the body and equipped with special receptors called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs); when given back to the patient, these “CAR T cells” recognize and attack cancer cells 

 
  • No adoptive T cell transfer technique is FDA approved, but several have shown great promise in early clinical trials

  • Adoptive T cell transfer has shown promise in the treatment of metastatic melanoma, lymphoma, leukemia, neuroblastoma, and synovial cell sarcoma; it is currently being investigated for use in other solid tumors and blood cancers

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Cytokines help your immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells

What is it called? 

How does it work?

For which cancers is it currently used or being studied?

Cytokines
 

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  • Cytokines are messenger molecules that help control the growth and activity of immune system cells, as well as blood cells

  • Types of cytokines include interleukins (IL), which help immune cells grow and divide more quickly; and interferons (IFN), which boost the ability of certain immune cells to attack cancer cells

 
  • Kidney (IL-2, IFN-alpha)

  • Melanoma (IL-2, IFN-alpha)

  • Hairy cell leukemia (IFN-alpha)

  • Follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (IFN-alpha)

  • Cutaneous (skin) T cell lymphoma (IFN-alpha)

  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (IFN-alpha)

  • Kaposi’s sarcoma (IFN-alpha)

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Adjuvant immunotherapies can help produce a greater immune response

What is it called? 

How does it work?

For which cancers is it currently used or being studied?

Adjuvant immunotherapy
 

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  • Adjuvant immunotherapies are substances that are either used alone or combined with other immunotherapies to boost the immune response even more 

  • Adjuvant immunotherapies can improve responses to therapeutic cancer vaccines that require the work of T cells or other immune cells

  • Some adjuvant immunotherapies use ligands—molecules that can bind to protein receptors—to boost immune responses

  • Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) is FDA approved to treat superficial bladder cancer

  • Granulocyte macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) is a cytokine that stimulates dendritic cells to develop, and is often used as an adjuvant with therapeutic cancer vaccines, including those for prostate and pancreatic cancer

  • An adjuvant immunotherapy called Montanide is currently being used in vaccine trials for a number of cancers

  • Toll-like receptors (TLRs) are used to enhance the body’s immune response, and have shown effectiveness in brain, kidney, lung, colon, pancreatic, prostate, ovarian and breast cancer

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These are examples of immunotherapies that are currently approved by the FDA for treatment of cancer or being tested in clinical trials. Click here for more information on whether a clinical trial of immunotherapy is available for a particular type of cancer

Download this list of clinical trial terms to help stay informed.

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