Immunotherapy works through the complex network of organs, tissues, and cells that make up the body’s immune system. The immune system’s primary job is to defend the body from infections and other foreign substances. It monitors the body’s cells and attacks and eliminates cells that are infected or damaged.
Cancer has ways of hiding from the body’s immune system, allowing cancer cells to grow and multiply. For example, cancer cells may look similar enough to normal cells that the immune system doesn’t recognize them as invaders. In addition, some types of cancer cells produce substances that turn off the immune system, allowing tumors to grow unchecked. Immunotherapy treatments are designed to help the body overcome cancer’s attempts to fool the immune system and stimulate a powerful anti-cancer attack.
Immunotherapy can work in several ways.
- In some cases, it works by boosting the body’s immune cells so that they are more effective in finding and killing cancer cells.
- In other cases, immunotherapy adds synthetic substances that mimic the body’s immune system’s attack cells.
- Other approaches blunt the tumor’s signals which limit immune function, thus allowing a stronger immunologic attack on the tumor tissue.
Leaders in immunotherapy research
Immunotherapy is a relatively new set of cancer-fighting techniques. Some immunotherapy treatments have already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and many more are being studied in clinical trials.
Through our partnership with the researchers at the Masonic Cancer Center, a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Minnesota physicians continue to build on our legacy of transformational achievements in the fight against cancer. In 1968, we led the world’s first successful related donor blood and marrow transplant, among many other cancer breakthroughs. Today, we offer many clinical trials to treat over 100 types of cancer.
Types of immunotherapy
University of Minnesota Health offers several types of immunotherapy treatments. Our multidisciplinary team works with each patient to determine the best treatment options.
Some of the available immunotherapy treatments include:
Some cancer cells are able to turn off the body’s immune response by influencing checkpoints, which are proteins on an immune cell’s surface that the cell uses to limit recognition of foreign substances in the body. Drugs called checkpoint inhibitors can reactivate those immune cells, allowing them to attack and kill the invading cancer cells.
Examples of newly licensed checkpoint inhibitor drugs include PD-1 inhibitors like Pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) and Nivolumab (Opdivo®) and PD-L1 inhibitors like Atezolizumab (Tecentriq®), Avelumab (Bavencio®), and Durvalumab (Imfinzi®). Many more are under study.
Checkpoint inhibitors have been effective in treating melanoma, lung cancer, bladder cancer, and Merkel cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. Our studies are currently underway to find out how checkpoint inhibitors can affect other cancers and how they can be combined with other treatments to work even better.
Vaccines – from measles to whooping cough – work by introducing a weakened or inactive form of an infection into the body so that the body’s immune system will develop antibodies to fight the infection. While traditional vaccines aim to prevent future disease, vaccine therapy of cancer prompts the body to attack cancer by stimulating the immune system to seek and destroy cancer cells.
University of Minnesota Health offers the FDA-approved vaccine therapy Sipuleucel-T (Provenge®) for treatment of advanced prostate cancer. We also offer ongoing vaccine therapy clinical trials for patients with certain types of brain cancer, bladder cancer, and skin cancer.
They include for example:
- Imiquimod/Brain Tumor Initiating Cell (BTIC) Vaccine in Brain Stem Glioma
- A study of HS-410 in Patients With Non-Muscle Invasive Bladder Cancer
- Study of a Melanoma Vaccine in Stage IIb, IIc, and III Melanoma Patients
Visit this page to find a full list of active immunotherapy clinical trials through University of Minnesota Health.
CAR T-cell therapy
University of Minnesota Health is also among the few centers nationwide approved to offer CAR T-cell therapy, revolutionary new immunotherapy treatments for cancer. CAR T-cell therapy works by modifying the patients’ own lymphocyte T-cells – to recognize and kill cancer cells. CAR T-cell therapy has the potential to eradicate certain blood cancers like (lymphoma and leukemia), and may have future benefits for patients fighting other types of cancer as well.