Courtesy of Miller Children's Hospital

Immunotherapy is sometimes referred to as either biotherapy or biological therapy. Immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells. It is also used to help control side effects from other cancer treatments.

Immunotherapy uses substances that naturally occur in the body to boost the functioning of the immune system. As a result, the body is able to destroy cancer cells more effectively. Because immunotherapy uses naturally occurring substances, it can lessen the side effects of cancer treatments and help the body replace normal cells that have been damaged or destroyed. Immunotherapy may also help prevent the spread of cancer cells in the body.

How Does Immunotherapy Work?

The immune system is a network of organs and cells that work to protect the body against disease. The immune system looks for cells that are not normal, such as bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells, and tries to destroy them.

During immunotherapy, patients are given substances called biological response modifiers (BRMs). These BRMs are substances that the body normally creates to fight cancer and other diseases. BRMs enhance the body’s natural ability to fight disease and boost the body’s power to recognize and destroy cancer cells. BRMs can also change the way the body reacts to a tumor.

There are two primary ways that BRMs work in immunotherapy:

Active Immunotherapies - Stimulating the body’s natural immune system responses to work harder and more efficiently and

Passive Immunotherapies - Giving substances, such as man-made proteins, to supplement a patient’s immune system to help it work more effectively.

Four common BRMs used to treat cancer are:
  • Cytokines
  • Interleukins
  • Colony-stimulating Factors
  • Monoclonal Antibodies

Performing Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is most often given in addition to other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. Treatments are generally injected into a vein through an IV, but there are also pills and shots that can be given at home.

The side effects depend upon the type of treatment performed. It is common for patients treated with immunotherapy to get flu-like symptoms. Side effects generally go away at the end of treatment.

Common side effects:
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Chills
  • Diarrhea
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Skin rash
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
For additional information about the immunotherapy that your child may be receiving, consult the consent forms you received before treatment started.

© The Children's Oncology Group
The information and content provided on this website is made available for informational purposes only for children and their families affected by cancer. While the Children's Oncology Group strives to provide accurate and up-to-date information, the information may be out of date or incomplete in certain respects. Please do not rely on this information and seek the care of a qualified medical professional if you have questions regarding a specific medical condition, disease, diagnosis or symptom. The information and content presented herein is not intended to replace the independent clinical judgement, medical advice, screening, health counseling, or other intervention performed by your (or your child's) health care provider. Please contact "911" or your emergency services if this is a health emergency. No endorsement of any specific tests, products, or procedures is made herein.