What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps your own immune system to fight cancer.

How does immunotherapy work?

Your immune system protects you from disease by killing bacteria and diseases. It also helps to fight cancer. A T cell is one type of immune cell that does this. Sometimes a part of your immune system is ‘turned off’ so it no longer recognises the abnormal cell growth that causes cancer. Immunotherapy helps to ‘turn on’ this part of your immune system so that it can identify and attack cancer cells.

“The doctors gave me six months. I’ve had

Pembrolizumab and I’m going strong 18 months

later. I’m feeling really good . Karen ”


Pharmacy 2190


Why you might have immunotherapy

Currently, immunotherapy is mostly used with people who have advanced cancer. It is not yet as widely used as surgery,

chemotherapy and radiation treatment. In New Zealand, checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapies pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo) are now available and subsidised for use in advanced melanoma.

Immunotherapy is being studied for use in many other types of cancer. The treatment is not right for everyone, so talk to your doctor to find out whether you might benefit from it.

Types of immunotherapy

Checkpoint inhibitors:

Cancer cells can trick the immune system by turning off the T cells, stopping them recognising and attacking the cancer cells. T cells have proteins on them that turn on the immune system when it needs to fight infection, and other proteins that turn off the immune system when it is no longer needed. These are called checkpoints.

Medications called checkpoint inhibitors turn the T cells back on so they can recognise and attack the cancer cells. You can find more detail on these treatments in the chart below.

Funded immunotherapy is only available when certain criteria are met. Please discuss these with your specialist.

immunotherapy treatment chart2 

Cancer vaccines as a treatment:

Cancer treatment vaccines work differently from the vaccines used to prevent viruses (diseases). Cancer vaccines aim to get the immune system to attack cancer cells in the body. Instead of preventing diseases, they are used to get the immune system to attack a disease that already exists. An example of this is the BCG vaccine used to treat some types of bladder cancer.

What are the side-effects of immunotherapy?

The side-effects of immunotherapy vary depending on the type of treatment you receive and how your body responds. Side-effects will be different from those of other cancer treatments. Immunotherapy can cause flu-like symptoms and your immune system to be over-active, resulting in a range of side-effects. This is your body’s expected response to the treatment.

Possible side-effects are shown in the diagram below: