Immunotherapy is a method of treatment which uses substances to encourage or to subdue your immune system to help your body fight cancer, infection, and other diseases.

For more information about the immune system and how it works, see our Immune system webpage.

Treating cancer with immunotherapy

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, by increasing survival by several months.

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

Treating brain tumours with immunotherapy

Unfortunately, there has, so far, been less success in brain tumours.

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.

Also some brain tumours are very good masters of disguise and can use a 'cloak' of molecules to make them look like normal cells to the immune system. This prevents immune cells from attacking them.

For this reason, research is continuing within clinical trials, including looking at combining immunotherapy with other treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, to improve results.

Clinical trials for immunotherapy treatment of brain tumours

As yet, immunotherapy isn't a proven treatment for brain tumours, but there are clinical trials that are helping us move closer to a treatment. For example:

The Brain Tumour Charity is also funding immunotherapy research.

Where to get more information

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.

Types of immunotherapy

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

Checkpoint inhibitors

Checkpoint inhibitors are drugs which 'take the brakes off' the immune system, allowing tumour cells to be destroyed.

Monoclonal antibodies

Monoclonal antibodies either work like checkpoint inhibitors or they prevent tumour cells from continuing to divide.

Cancer vaccines

A person's own 'dendritic cells' are 'taught' to recognise tumour cells to help the immune system respond to the tumour.

Oncolytic viruses

Oncolytic viruses infect cancer cells, where they can either kill the cell directly or act as a flag to the immune system.

Adoptive T-cell therapy (ACT)

ACT involves the development of a “new drug" for each patient increasing the number of a person's own tumour-fighting T-cells

Adjuvant immunotherapies

Adjuvant immunotherapies are substance used alone, or in combination, to boost the immune system.

The Cancer Research Institute has produced a number of short, animated videos on how these different types of immunotherapy work. Please note that comments about the success/approvals for use relate to other tumour/cancer types i.e. NOT brain tumours.

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