Immunotherapy for Blood Cancers

What Is Immunotherapy (Biotherapy)?

Immunotherapy — sometimes referred to as biotherapy — uses the body’s immune system to help fight diseases such as blood cancer.

It can work directly with your body’s immune system to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells. Or, it can indirectly prepare your immune system to destroy or attack cancer cells.

Biologic therapies include substances made by the body or in a lab.

What's the Difference Between Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy works with your immune system to combat cancer, whereas chemotherapy drugs directly target the cancer.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center experts are on the leading edge of designing new biotherapies for blood cancer, earning national recognition for our efforts.

Types of Immunotherapy for Blood Cancer

The following drugs and natural substances can work to fight blood cancer:

  • Angiogenesis inhibitors — these drugs prevent the development of blood vessels that would support the cancer’s growth. Lenalidomide and pomalidomide are angiogenesis inhibitors.
  • Cytokines — these are signaling proteins made by white blood cells to regulate immune response and slow the growth of cancer cells. Interferon and interleukin are two common cytokines.
  • Gene therapy — this approach involves inserting genetic material into cells to fight blood cancer using a viral vector. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center  is a pioneer in researching this experimental therapy.
  • Immunomodulators — these substances affect the way cells interact and signal each other to divide and grow. Pomalidomide and thalidomide are immunomodulators.
  • Monoclonal antibodies — these lab-produced antibodies, given by IV infusion, bind to cancer cells. This allows the immune system to kill the cancer cells in the blood and bone marrow.
  • Oncolytic virus therapy — this experimental approach uses viruses to kill cancer cells. Oncolytic viruses do not affect healthy cells, but they reproduce inside the cancer cells to cause cell death.
  • Proteasome inhibitors — these drugs prevent protein breakdowns within cancer cells, leading to a cytotoxic protein build-up. They also hinder the growth signals among cells. Bortezomib is one type of proteasome inhibitor.
  • Tyrosine kinase inhibitors — these drugs target an abnormal chromosome that makes a protein that spurs cancer growth.

For some blood cancers, your doctor may suggest immunotherapy along with steroids and chemo.

Before a stem cell transplant, your doctor may use a combination treatment of biologic therapies, chemo, and steroids.

Receiving Immunotherapy for Blood Cancer

You will have immunotherapy treatment once or a few times a week, for several weeks:

  • In a clinic.
  • At the doctor's office.
  • In the hospital.

In most cases, you'll receive a shot of immunotherapy directly into a vein over the course of a few hours.

Your doctor or nurse will inject the biologic agent near the location of the blood or bone cancer.

Immunotherapy side effects

The side effects of immunotherapy depend on the agents used, and they differ from person to person.

These therapies often cause a rash or swelling at the injection site.

They also may cause:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Weakness

Your health care team may check your blood for signs of anemia and other problems.

Contact Us About Immunotherapy for Blood Cancer

To reach the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, call 412-864-6600.