Immunotherapy is also known as biologic therapy, biotherapy or biological response modifiers. Your immune system consists of organs and white blood cells, also called leukocytes, which help to protect your body against infections and diseases. Immunotherapy stimulates white blood cells to work harder and smarter to boost your body’s immune response to cancer, with little or no effect on healthy tissue. It can also help to control side effects from other cancer treatments.

Definition of treatment

Unlike synthetic or chemical drugs, biological response modifiers, or biologics for short, are made from living organisms. Immunotherapy uses biologics to help your immune system fight cancer by stopping or slowing cancer cell growth, destroying cancer cells, and keeping cancer from metastasizing, or spreading, to other parts of your body.

There are five general types of biologics that are used alone or in combination for immunotherapy.

  • Cancer vaccines help the body to recognize cancer cells already in the body and then trigger the immune system to reject or keep them from multiplying.
  • Interferons are groups of proteins, produced by white blood cells that have been invaded with viral organisms, which help to fight viral infections and improve the immune system’s reaction to cancer. 
  • Interleukins are proteins that increase growth and activity in the body’s immune cells. Interleukin-2 (IL-2) is an FDA-approved anti-cancer treatment.
  • Colony stimulating factors (CSF) work in the bone marrow, where red and white blood cells and platelets are produced, to create more immune system and blood cells.
  • Monoclonal antibodies are made when two different types of cells are fused together. They are designed to attack antigens, which are responsible for identifying foreign cells, such as cancer cells, and initiating an immune response.

Types of treatment

There are two basic types of immunotherapy:

  • Active, which triggers your body’s immune system to fight the disease, and 
  • Passive, which uses man-made immune system components, such as antibodies, that are produced outside of the body in a lab; these components are then injected into your body to attack the disease.

Immunotherapy can also be categorized by the type of cell it targets. Specific immunotherapies target one kind of cell or antigen, and non-specific immunotherapies stimulate the immune system in general.

UC San Diego Health System expertise

Physician-scientists at UC San Diego Health System are actively using immunotherapy to treat certain cancers, including neuroblastoma and melanoma, as well as prostate, bladder, kidney and breast cancer.

Neuroblastoma is a hard-to-treat cancer arising from nervous system cells. Researchers used antibody-based immunotherapy in children with neuroblastoma to achieve a 20 percent increase in the number of children living disease-free for two years.

Researchers are working on a new vaccine aimed at both treating and stopping the spread of certain types of cancers, including prostate, breast, ovarian and lung. This study focuses on T-cells, which have been shown to recognize sugar molecules on tumor cell surfaces and then attach to and kill the cancer cell.

For patients with bladder cancer that has not invaded the muscle tissue, physicians are using intravesical therapy, a type of immunotherapy, to decrease the progression of the disease. 


Will immunotherapy be my only treatment?
Possibly, but it will depend upon your type of cancer and your doctor’s recommendations. Often immunotherapy is done along with chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Where will I receive immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy can be given via pills or shots that you can take at home, as well as intravenously (IV), which requires a hospital or clinic visit.

How often will I receive immunotherapy?
Treatment schedules vary and will depend upon your type of cancer and your doctor’s recommendations. Some treatments are once a day, whereas, others are once a week or month.

What are possible side effects of immunotherapy?

  • Rash or swelling near injection site
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Lowered blood pressure