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Research in immunotherapy

Immunotherapy uses the immune system to help destroy cancer cells. It is sometimes called biological therapy. Some types of immunotherapy are already in use. Immune checkpoint inhibitors (types of monoclonal antibodies), interferon and interleukin are types of immunotherapy being used to treat cancer.

Find out more about immunotherapy.

Researchers continue to study other ways of using the immune system to destroy cancer cells. They are also looking at combining different immunotherapies, using immunotherapy with chemotherapy or radiation therapy, giving immunotherapy after surgery and treating earlier stage cancers with immunotherapy.

Monoclonal antibodies

Monoclonal antibodies are made in the lab. Monoclonal antibodies find and bind to a specific antigen (such as a protein) on a cancer cell that triggers the immune system to attack and destroy those cells. Monoclonal antibodies are both an immunotherapy and a targeted therapy.

Researchers are developing new monoclonal antibodies to treat many different types of cancer. They are also studying ways to make monoclonal antibodies more powerful by attaching them to chemotherapy drugs or other substances. Research is also looking at ways to make them safer and work better.

Cancer treatment vaccines

Most people think of vaccines as something that prevents you from getting a disease or infection. And they’re right – the HPV vaccine, which is already in use, prevents cervical and other HPV-related cancers. But researchers are also developing vaccines to treat cancer. Cancer treatment vaccines help the immune system to fight cancer by:

  • slowing or stopping cancer growth
  • destroying cancer cells
  • shrinking a tumour
  • preventing the cancer from coming back

Tumour cell vaccines are made from weakened or killed cancer cells. The cancer cells are collected from the person with cancer who is being treated or from another person with a similar type of cancer. They are changed (modified) in a lab to make them easier for the immune system to recognize and attack them. These cancer cells are then given radiation to make sure they are all killed and then the killed cancer cells are injected into the person. The cancer cells injected into the body will stimulate an immune response so the immune system destroys them and the similar types of cancer cells still in the body.

Antigen vaccines use proteins or parts of proteins (called antigens) that are unique to specific cancers or that are found in higher than normal amounts on cancer cells. When the antigen vaccine is injected into the person, the vaccine causes an immune response that helps the body to attack cancer cells.

Dendritic cell vaccines are made from a person’s white blood cells (immune cells that help to fight infection and disease). In the lab, the white blood cells are exposed to cancer cells, antigens found on cancer cells or chemicals that turn them into a specialized type of white blood cell called a dendritic cell. The dendritic cells are then injected back into the person and help other immune cells in the body find and attack cancer cells.

Vector-based vaccines are made from viruses, bacteria or yeast cells that have been changed (modified) in the lab to deliver antigens found on cancer cells. But the modified viruses, bacteria or yeast won’t cause disease or infection. Vector-based vaccines deliver more than one type of antigen, those from cancer cells and those found on the virus, bacteria or yeast cell. This helps to increase the chance that the immune system will mount an attack against the cancer cells in the body. Some research is studying the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to treat leukemia.

Oncolytic virus therapy

Oncolytic virus therapy uses a genetically modified virus (a virus that has its genetic information changed) to infect and destroy cancer cells. The virus can be injected directly into the tumour where it goes into cancer cells and makes copies of itself. This causes the cancer cells to burst and die. As the cells die they release antigens and other chemicals that trigger the immune system to start attacking cancer cells, including those that haven’t been infected with the virus.

Adoptive T cell transfer therapy

Adoptive T cell transfer therapy uses a person’s own T cells to fight cancer. There are 2 different approaches to adoptive T cell transfer.

In one approach, doctors take T cells from a person’s tumour and look for the ones that are best at finding cancer. These T cells are grown in large numbers in the lab and then injected back into the person. The goal of this approach is that the large number of T cells given to the person will attack and destroy the remaining cancer cells in the body.

Another approach is called chimeric antigen receptor therapy (CAR-T). With this type of adoptive T cell transfer, T cells are taken from the person with cancer and changed to have special receptors that can recognize specific antigens on cancer cells. The T cells are then given back to the person where they multiply, attack and destroy the cancer cells.


A foreign substance that stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies against it.


I want everyone to win their battles like we did. That’s why I’ve left a gift in my will to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Read Margaret's story

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