Cancer immunotherapy refers to the use of treatments that harness and enhance the natural powers of the immune system to fight cancer.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is the most promising new cancer treatment since the development of chemotherapy in the late 1940s. Recently, there have been a surge of new immune-based therapies, changing the landscape of how some of the more deadly cancers are being treated. With this aim, we’re funding several immunotherapy projects. Cancer immunotherapy refers to the use of treatments that harness and enhance the natural powers of the immune system to fight cancer. The immune system is our first line of defence against cancer; immune cells patrol the body on the look out for cells that are not normal, such as bacteria, viruses and cancer cells, and try to destroy them. Unfortunately, cancer is adept at bypassing the immune system. It can do this by impeding the immune system, to prevent an immune response, or by simply evading detection since cancer cells are recognised as ‘self’ rather than as foreign. Immunotherapy represents the most promising new cancer treatment approach since the development of the first chemotherapies in the late 1940s. It uses substances that naturally occur in the body to boost the functioning of the immune system. As a result, the body is able to destroy cancer cells more effectively, and with fewer side-effects than chemotherapy drugs. Bone marrow transplant, often used in the treatment of children with leukaemia, is itself a form of immunotherapy as the donated immune cells help effect cure by attacking the patient’s remaining leukaemic cells – an effect known as “graft versus leukaemia”. The last five years have seen a surge of new immune-based therapies that are changing the landscape of how children with some of the more deadly cancers are treated.

Immunotherapy side effects

To learn about immunotherapy’s potential side effects, and those of other cancer types, please visit our side effects page. Learn about cancer treatment types side effects

Case study: Layla Richards

In November 2015, there was widespread media coverage of the case of Layla Richards from London. She had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) when she was only three months old. Conventional treatments had failed and Layla’s parents were told there was nothing more that could be done except… …Layla’s doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital sought permission to try a highly experimental therapy that had only been trialled in mice. The therapy involved the use of microscopic ‘scissors’ to edit the DNA in immune cells taken from a donor. These new immune cells were designed to behave in two specific ways. Firstly, the cells become invisible to a powerful leukaemia drug that would usually kill them. Secondly they target and fight only leukaemia cells. The treatment was due for final stage testing. But after an emergency ethics committee meeting, permission was granted for Layla to be given the experimental therapy. It took less than 10 minutes to administer. And with that, Layla and her doctors made history. It’s a truly remarkable story – Layla went from having incurable leukaemia to being leukaemia-free within weeks. Professor Waseem Qasim, Professor of Cell and Gene Therapy at UCL Institute of Child Health and Consultant Immunologist at GOSH, is leading the laboratory studies and helped to make this treatment available for Layla. He says: “We have only used this treatment on one very strong little girl, and we have to be cautious about claiming that this will be a suitable treatment option for all children. “But this is a landmark in the use of new gene engineering technology and the effects for this child have been staggering. If replicated, it could represent a huge step forward in treating leukaemia and other cancers.” It’s still early days. It’ll be a year or two before doctors know whether Layla is actually cured and she’ll be closely monitored in the meantime. A clinical trial to test the therapy in larger groups of patients will get underway in 2016.

Little Translators Explain: Immunotherapy Research

Our Little Translators, Sam and Ross, help to explain Dr Kathleen Birley’s research. Immunotherapy is becoming an increasingly important tool in the treatment of cancer, and some early success has been achieved in certain childhood cancers. It potentially offers increased effectiveness with fewer side effects.

Dr Kathleen Birley’s research


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