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How does immunotherapy work?

The human body’s immune system is a network of cells and organs that work together to protect the body from threats like infections, toxins and abnormal cell development. When a germ or other foreign organism enters the body, the immune system provides defends the body from attack. Immunotherapy targets and enhances this natural response by using cytokines (proteins that activate the immune system), which can be given intravenously or orally to potentially shrink the cancer.

There are different kinds of immunotherapy and they work in different ways, such as:

  • boosting the immune system to work better against cancer
  • removing barriers to the immune system

Some forms of immunotherapy treatment—such as BCG—have been in use for many years, with research continuing to discover new forms of immunotherapy—like checkpoint inhibitor drugs, which work by helping the immune system to recognise and attack the cancer.

It is important to note that, like with any type of cancer treatment, people react to immunotherapy differently. Side effects can vary and not everyone will experience the same effects.