There’s a powerful ally in the fight against cancer, and it’s inside your own body:  your immune system.

The development of “immunotherapies”—cancer treatments that harness the ability of your immune system to find and attack cancer cells—has accelerated in leaps and bounds. New anticancer immunotherapies are being developed around the world, and innovative uses for existing immunotherapy drugs are being uncovered on a regular basis. At John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, patients have access to the full range of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved immunotherapies for cancer as well as novel treatments being evaluated in clinical trials.

How Immunotherapy Works

Nature has equipped your body with an immune system to fight off harmful invaders. Your body is designed to recognize those invaders as foreign, mounting a carefully orchestrated defense against bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing pests. But cancer cells are different. Because they arise from your body’s own cells, your immune system may not recognize them as foreign.

Cancer cells can be stealthy, evading detection by the immune system by activating certain proteins that suppress the immune response. The cancer cells can then travel through your body virtually unseen, ready to take up residence wherever they decide to take root. There are different types of immunotherapy, but they all share a common goal: to help the immune system identify cancer cells and mount an attack against them. Combined with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies, immunotherapy is now considered the “fifth pillar” of cancer treatment.

Types of Immunotherapy

Some types of immunotherapy, such as monoclonal antibodies, have been available for years. Others, like checkpoint inhibitors and CAR T-cell therapy, are newer. Here’s an overview of the different types of immunotherapy.

  • Cancer vaccines are custom-made from a patient’s own tumor cells or from substances their tumors produce. They can be used to treat a cancer or to prime the patient’s immune system to fight off a recurrence. An example is Provenge® for prostate cancer.
  • Monoclonal antibodies are drugs that bind to specific proteins on the surface of cancer cells, causing them to self-destruct. An example is trastuzumab for breast and esophageal cancers. Some antibodies have an anticancer drug attached to them (antibody-drug conjugates) or a radioactive substance (radioimmunoconjugates, such as ibritumomab for lymphoma). In those cases, the antibody acts as a transporter, traveling directly to a cancer cell, where the drug or radiation can do its work of killing the cell.
  • Checkpoint inhibitors are among the most exciting and promising immunotherapy drugs available today, and new ones are being created in laboratories and evaluated in clinical trials. Checkpoint proteins (such as CTLA-4 and PD-1) regulate the immune response and may be commandeered by cancer cells to suppress the immune response. Checkpoint inhibitors block those proteins, taking the brakes off the immune response and allowing the immune system to detect and destroy cancer cells. Examples of these drugs include ipilimumab, nivolumab, pembrolizumab, atezolizumab, avelumab, and durvalumab. They are approved for treating a wide range of solid tumors, including melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, bladder cancer, liver cancer, cervical cancer, lymphoma, kidney cancer, and head and neck cancers, among others.
  • Cellular therapies, such as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, re-engineer immune cells such as T cells to “train” them how to fight cancer cells. Other cellular therapies in development target T-cell receptors, natural killer cells, and tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes. The two available CAR T-cell therapies are axicabtagene ciloleucel (Yescarta®) and tisagenlecleucel (Kymriah®).

CAR T-Cell Therapy at John Theurer Cancer Center

John Theurer Cancer Center is one of the few sites in the country and the first site in New Jersey to offer CAR T-cell therapy—a highly promising form of personalized immunotherapy for certain blood cancers—and has been involved in CAR T-cell research for over a decade. The FDA approved CAR T-cell therapy for use in patients up to age 25 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) that either came back or stopped responding to other leukemia treatments, and to treat adult patients with certain types of large B-cell lymphoma who have not responded to or who have relapsed after at least two other kinds of treatment.

Each dose of CAR-T cell therapy is a customized treatment created using a patient’s own immune system to help fight the cancer. The patient’s T cells, a type of white blood cell, are collected and genetically modified to include a new gene that targets and kills cancer cells. Once the cells are modified, they are infused back into the patient to treat the cancer.

Learn more about CAR T-cell therapy

Advancing the Use of Checkpoint Inhibitors

John Theurer Cancer Center was involved in key aspects of the approval of checkpoint inhibitors, particularly through early-phase clinical trials in its dedicated Phase I Clinical Trials Program. These drugs have extended many lives. Yet many patients experience a recurrence of their cancer or stop responding to these immunotherapies.

Our clinical research team is conducting many clinical trials of novel treatment approaches for patients with cancer that came back or continued to grow despite checkpoint inhibitors or other immunotherapy. Patients may be able to receive new investigational drugs alone or in combination, or anticancer agents combined with immunotherapy to reactivate its effectiveness.

Find a clinical trial

Immunotherapy Expertise at John Theurer Cancer Center

In addition to our exceptional CAR T-cell program and our experience with checkpoint inhibitors, the cancer professionals at John Theurer Cancer Center have extraordinary expertise in the field of immunology that makes them well-equipped to give immunotherapy.

  • Our physicians include pioneers in blood and marrow stem cell transplantation and lead organizations that are defining the field—not just in the U.S., but in the world.
  • Collectively, our physician leaders have among the most hands-on experience in applied cell therapy in the world, having performed more than 30,000 transplants since 1981.
  • With 1,200 team members collaborating in a highly subspecialized and multidisciplinary environment, John Theurer Cancer Center understands the intricacies of cancer, its treatment, and the individual.
  • Immunotherapy is an intensive treatment that requires specialized expertise and resources to support the patients who receive it. The most challenging cancers need the most complex treatments, such as CAR-T cell therapy, and require the most experienced physicians to deliver them safely. You can find those doctors at John Theurer Cancer Center.

Cancers Treated with Immunotherapy

Our doctors offer immunotherapy, either as part of standard treatment or a clinical trial, for these cancers: