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Immunotherapy for brain tumours

Immunotherapy is a method of treatment which uses medicines to encourage or to subdue your immune system to help your body fight cancer, infection, and other diseases. While immunotherapy has, so far, shown less success in treating brain tumours than other types of cancers, research into this is ongoing.

On this page:

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a type of therapy designed to use the body’s immune system to target something that could be harmful, like cancer cells.

The idea is to activate cancer-fighting immune cells. This might be done through one or more of the six main types of immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy for treating cancer

Some types of immunotherapy target certain immune cells; others affect the whole immune system in a general way. The immune system has a tougher time targeting tumour cells than other foreign substances. This is because:

  • Sometimes the tumour cells aren’t different enough from normal cells for your immune system to see them as foreign (unlike infectious organisms, tumours are fundamentally “self” i.e. are your body’s own cells)
  • Sometimes the immune system recognises the tumour cells, but its attack isn’t strong enough to destroy the tumour
  • Tumour cells can also give off signals that fool the immune system into thinking they are not foreign, or signals that shut down the local immune system activity

However, immunotherapy research has had some success in some tumours/cancers, in patients with advanced cancer, increasing survival by several months. Studies are also being performed where immunotherapy is given after surgery and radiotherapy to see if it reduces the risk of tumour recurring.

  • In the US, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has approved some immunotherapy treatments, including immunotherapies for some skin, liver, breast, prostate, kidney and lung cancers.
  • In Europe, the EMA (European Medicines Agency) has approved immunotherapies that include those for some lung, bladder, skin, lymphoma and neuroblastoma cancers.

Learn more about immunotherapy

The Cancer Research Institute has produced short videos on how these different types of immunotherapy work.

Please note that comments about the success/approvals for use in the above video relate to other tumour/cancer types NOT brain tumours.

Immunotherapy for brain tumours

Unfortunately, there has been less success in immunotherapy for brain tumours than in other cancer types.

When it comes to the brain, immune-based treatments face a number of obstacles before they can even reach the tumour. One of the most significant challenges is the blood-brain barrier which protects the brain from harmful substances and many medicines.

For this reason, research is continuing within clinical trials.

Types of immunotherapy for brain tumours

Some types of immunotherapy target certain immune cells while others affect the whole immune system in a general way.

Current immunotherapies for brain tumours fall into six main categories (some of which overlap). These are:

Checkpoint inhibitors

Your body’s normal cells have proteins that basically tell the immune system not to attack them. But, tumour cells can sometimes produce these too. Checkpoint inhibitors are drugs designed to block the checkpoint proteins on the tumour cells and let the immune system try to destroy the cells.

Monoclonal antibodies

Monoclonal antibodies are lab-created versions of the antibodies made by your body to fight disease and infection. These are sometimes used in checkpoint inhibitors. They are also sometimes used to stop cells dividing or moving.

Cancer vaccines

Vaccines introduce parts of a disease into your body to help your immune system understand it so it can fight it. This is often done for viruses like flu or chickenpox and recently with Covid. But, scientists are now using this idea to create vaccines to prevent or possibly even treat cancer.

While vaccines aren’t yet a major type of cancer treatment, research and clinical trials are ongoing.

Oncolytic viruses

Viruses can sometimes infect and kills cells. So, scientists have found a way to alter naturally occurring viruses so that they can attack cancer cells instead of healthy cells. These are called oncolytic viruses.

Adoptive T-cell therapy (ACT)

Your body’s immune system has cells called T-cells, which are able to find and fight anything in the body that they identify as being not part of that body. Adoptive T-cell therapy involves creating more of these T-cells so that your body is able to fight infections and diseases, like cancer.

Adjuvant immunotherapies

Adjuvant immunotherapies are substances that either boost your body’s natural immune system or boost the effectiveness of other immunotherapies.


DCVax-L is a newly trialled type of immunotherapy called dendritic cell vaccine. This vaccine is exposed to tumour cells outside of the body, which teaches it to recognise them. It is then reinserted into the body to attack the cancerous cells.

Clinical trials for immunotherapy treatment of brain tumours

An illustration of scientist who is a woman of colour looking down a microscope against a purple background.

Trial finds DCVax-L can prolong the lives of those living with a Glioblastoma

A major phase III clinical trial has found that novel treatment DCVax®-L can prolong the lives of people diagnosed with a new or recurrent glioblastoma

Read more about finding clinical trials here.

The Brain Tumour Charity is also funding immunotherapy research.

Previous immunotherapy projects funded by The Brain Tumour Charity:

Where to get more information about immunotherapy

If you are interested in taking part in a clinical trial and would like to know more about whether immunotherapy is suitable for you, talk to your medical team. Below are some questions to help you with this.

You might find it helpful to think about any questions you have and write them down before going to see your doctor. It can also be helpful to have someone with you to write down the answers.

Questions to ask your doctor:

  • What can you tell me about immunotherapy?
  • Can I have immunotherapy? If not, what is suitable for me?
  • How might I feel during immunotherapy treatment?
  • What are the possible side-effects of immunotherapy?
  • Are there any immunotherapy clinical trials for my brain tumour type?
  • How can I request to be part of a clinical trial?
  • Is it possible to access immunotherapy privately, if so where?
  • How much does immunotherapy cost (privately)?

Make the right choices for you

Our Step by Step interactive guide outlines what happens following a diagnosis, to answer your questions and help you to understand what to expect.

If you have further questions, need to clarify any of the information on this page, or want to find out more about research and clinical trials, please contact our team:
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