Immunotherapy Cancer Treatment: How Does It Work, Cost, Science

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Updated on May 7, 2020

Immunotherapy is the current big thing in cancer treatment. It is a treatment that stimulates the immune system to fight cancer. It boosts the body’s natural defenses to attack cancer cells. Does immunotherapy work for every cancer patient? Here’s what you should know.

How does immunotherapy work?

Immunotherapy is a biological therapy. It uses substances made by the human body or other living organisms to boost the immune system.1 Immunotherapy works in many ways. It can stop or slow the growth of cancer cells. It can prevent cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. It can help the immune system destroy cancer cells.2 There are different types of immunotherapy:1

Immune checkpoint inhibitors: Immune checkpoints in the body prevent the immune response from being overly strong. Drugs that block these checkpoints allow the immune system to respond more powerfully to fight cancer.

T-cell transfer therapy: T-cells are immune cells that fight disease in the body. In this type of immunotherapy, T-cells are removed from the tumor, modified in the lab to better attack cancer cells, and reintroduced back into the body.

Cancer vaccines: Cancer treatment vaccines boost the immune system’s ability to destroy cancer cells.

Monoclonal antibodies: These are special lab-produced proteins that bind to cancer cells and mark them so that they are more easily identified and destroyed by the immune system.

Immune system modulators: Drugs that boost the body’s immune response and help the immune system fight cancer.

What types of cancers can be treated with immunotherapy?

Some immunotherapies are approved for specific cancers. Others can be used to treat cancers anywhere in the body.2 Some of the immunotherapies that have FDA approval include:2

  • Pembrolizumab for metastatic tumors that cannot be treated with surgery.
  • Nivolumab for metastatic colorectal cancers.
  • Proleukin for skin cancer including melanoma and kidney cancer.
  • T-VEC (Imlygic) for melanoma.

Is immunotherapy for cancer covered by health insurance?

Immunotherapy is often covered by health insurance but patients may be liable for some out-of-pocket cancer treatment costs.3

Is immunotherapy the same as chemotherapy?

No, chemotherapy acts directly on cancer cells and kills them. Immunotherapy boosts the body’s immune response and trains the immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells.4

What is the average cost of immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is expensive and costs can run up to $100,000 per year.3 However, if immunotherapy is curative for a patient’s cancer, it can be less expensive than repeated courses of less expensive treatments like chemoradiation.3

Can cancer be treated with immunotherapy?

Not all types of cancer can be treated or cured with immunotherapy. Also, not all patients respond to immunotherapy. However, if a patient’s cancer responds to immunotherapy, there is an advantage of the durability of response. Oftentimes, immunotherapy can achieve a long-term remission that allows patients to return to normal life.3

 Are there any side effects of immunotherapy for cancer?

For the most part, immunotherapy is well tolerated. Unlike conventional cancer treatments (chemotherapy and radiotherapy), immunotherapy does not cause severe side effects.5 Common side effects of immunotherapy include skin reactions and flu-like symptoms. They are especially common with oncolytic virus therapy and nonspecific immunotherapy.5 Sometimes, more serious side effects can occur.



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