What Is Immunotherapy & How Does It Treat Cancer?

For most of us, surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are the only treatment options we think about when we hear of cancer. However, there are several other treatment options available to people with cancer depending on the type and stage of the cancer, the general health of the person undertaking treatment and other determinants. 

Cancer treatment options include:

  1. Surgery which is done to remove cancer tumours and can be followed by other treatments such as radiation therapy depending on the type and stage of the cancer.
  2. Chemotherapy which is a common treatment option for cancer using a combination of drugs to kill the cancer cells. This option has a number of side-effects including loss of hair, nausea and vomiting.
  3. Radiation therapy which uses high-energy beams to destroy cancer cells. This method can however destroy even the normal healthy cells around the affected area.
  4. Chemotherapy and Radiation therapy can be used together to treat cancer in a process referred to as Chemoradiation.
  5. Target therapy which uses drugs to kill cancer cells without causing damage to normal cells.
  6. Hormone therapy which aims at slowing down or stopping the growth of cancer cells in the body using medicines.


The focus of this post however, is on Immunotherapy – which uses gene editing to treat the disease. This potentially game changing cancer treatment option was approved by the Food and Drugs Administration in 2015. It can involve using the patient’s own cells which are re-engineered in a lab to improve and restore their immune system function. They are then returned to the body to fight the disease, in this case, cancer. By doing so, the body is made aware of the presence of cancer cells in the body, and is able to locate and fight them.

Purpose of Immunotherapy

The purpose of Immunotherapy treatment is to:

  1. Slow down or stop the growth of cancer cells in the body,
  2. Stop the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body, and
  3. Assist the body’s immune system to work better in fighting the cancer cells.

Types of Immunotherapy

  1. Monoclonal Antibodies: These antibodies are proteins made in a lab and can be used in Immunotherapy to help the immune system locate and fight the cancer cells.
  2. Oncolytic Virus Therapy: This involves using genetically modified viruses to kill cancer cells. The virus is injected into the cancerous tumour to make copies of itself, causing the cells to die, and releasing antigens that trigger the immune system which is now able to target the cancer cells in the body. Some of the side-effects of this type of immune therapy may include fever, nausea, fatigue, and pain where the virus is injected.
  3. Non-specific immunotherapies: These help the immune system to fight cancer by stimulating the body’s immune system. Though they are not specific to cancer, they may be given as a cancer treatment or to support cancer treatments by boosting the body’s immunity and so improve other immunotherapy treatments such as vaccines. There are 2 types of non-specific immunotherapies:
    a. Interleukins which produce cells that destroy the cancer, and
    b. Interferons that help the immune system fight cancer and slow down the growth of cancer cells.
  4. Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors: These work by attacking foreign cells in the body or by stopping immune cells from being destroyed. Drugs can be used to prevent cancer cells from using these checkpoints to avoid being attacked.
  5. Cancer Vaccines: These are used to:
    a. Help prevent cancer by vaccinating against viruses that can lead to cancer such as the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and Hepatitis B virus.
    b. Help treat cancer by helping the immune system to attack cancer cells in the body.

The Cancers for which Immunotherapy treatment can be used

Immunotherapy can be used in treating the following cancers, which includes:

  1. Lung cancer
  2. Kidney cancer that is resistant to other treatment options
  3. Skin cancer
  4. Cancer in the head and neck that is resistant to chemotherapy
  5. Lymphoma
  6. Cancer in the bladder that is resistant to chemotherapy

Side-effects of Immunotherapy

Unfortunately, Immunotherapy may have side-effects, such as:

  • Sores in the mouth
  • Skin reaction – dryness, redness and blisters
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Oedema (swelling of the legs)
  • Coughing
  • Changes in hormones
  • Breathing problems
  • Headaches
  • Gaining weight due to fluid retention

How IMT can help

We, at International Medical Treatment (IMT), are experienced facilitators who can link you with some of the best immunotherapy treatment specialists in our partner hospitals in India, Dubai and Thailand.

Find Out More

To find out more about IMT and the services available visit our website at www.intmedicaltreatment.com or call us today on +254 0740 409 727. You can also visit our office at The Mirage, 1st Floor, Tower 2, Chiromo, Westlands, Nairobi, Kenya.