Your body’s immune system is made up of roving white blood cells and a network of organs, nodes, ducts and vessels called the lymph system. It defends you from invading viruses and bacteria, and it is believed to defend you from many cancer cells.
New classes of cancer drugs, called immunotherapy or biological therapy, take advantage of this complex system. Your Sutter Health network cancer specialist may use drugs for immunotherapy called PD-L1 inhibitors and CTLA-4 inhibitors, which are used to treat many cancers including lung, melanoma, kidney and bladder cancers. Other treatment options include monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), which spark your immune system to attack the cancer in targeted areas of your body. Such drugs (rituximab and alemtuzumab) have improved survival rates for non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients and lymphocytic leukemia patients.
Other therapies, called cytokines, supercharge the body’s ability to fight some cancers by recruiting or genetically altering certain white blood cells. Clinical trials are underway to test cancer vaccines, comprised of viruses and bacteria intended to treat prostate, colorectal, lung, breast, thyroid and head and neck cancers.
If you are a bladder cancer patient in the Sutter Health network, you may receive the very first biological therapy to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It's called Bacillus Calmette-Guérin therapy and involves inserting a mild form of the tuberculosis bacterium into the bladder using a catheter, which initiates an immune response to the bladder cancer.
Immunotherapies are not without side effects. Triggering an immune response in your body can cause flu-like symptoms. If immunotherapy is right for you, your Sutter Health physician will discuss potential complications with you.