Skip to content

Speak to a qualified cancer nurse

Call us on 13 11 20

Avg. connection time: 25 secs

How checkpoint immunotherapy works

The drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors are the most widely used form of immunotherapy for cancer. They work by helping the immune system to recognise and attack the cancer. 

T-cells and checkpoint inhibitors

What T-cells usually do – The immune system’s T-cells circulate throughout the body looking for abnormal cells to destroy. The T-cells carry proteins known as “checkpoints”.

What checkpoints usually do – Checkpoints act as natural brakes to stop T-cells destroying healthy cells.

How some cancer cells use checkpoints – In some people, the cancer cells use these checkpoints to stop T-cells recognising the cancer cells as abnormal.

What checkpoint inhibitors do – Checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that block these checkpoints so that the T-cells can once again recognise and destroy  the cancer. This is like taking the brakes off the immune system.

Featured resource

Understanding Immunotherapy

Download resource

This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed July 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Brett Hughes, Senior Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital and The Prince Charles Hospital, and Associate Professor, The University of Queensland, QLD; Dawn Bedwell, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Tamara Dawson, Consumer; A/Prof Craig Gedye, Senior Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Associate Professor, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle, NSW; A/Prof Alexander Menzies, Medical Oncologist, Associate Professor of Melanoma Medical Oncology, and Faculty Member, Melanoma Institute Australia, The University of Sydney, Royal North Shore Hospital and Mater Hospital, NSW; Dr Donna Milne, Nurse Consultant Melanoma and Skin Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Geoffrey Peters, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Canberra Hospital and Health Services, and Clinical Lecturer, Australian National University, ACT.