Immunotherapy: the New Chemotherapy?

Patient Expert

Chemotherapy is devastating.

Perhaps the most dreaded part of breast cancer treatment, chemo is marked by hair loss, chronic fatigue, debilitating sickness, mental issues, and often permanent side effects. Aside from death, it’s probably the breast cancer survivor’s biggest nightmare.

According to the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Trends Progress Report, about 63 percent of all women whose cancer has spread to their lymph nodes receive chemotherapy. For these women, chemo can be a real and proven life-saver. A key part of cancer treatment’s classic “slash, poison, and burn” (surgery, chemo, and radiation), chemo chemically disables cancer cells, stopping their spread.

Still, chemo’s life-saving treatment comes at a terrible cost – including potential death.

A promising new treatment

Immunotherapy – using the body’s own immune system to target and destroy cancer cells – is a growing field of research. An ongoing clinical trial has recently shown dramatic results in a small group of patients with blood cancer – and researchers say these results should translate to future treatment for women with breast cancer.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a way of teaching a person’s own immune system to identify and kill cancer cells.

While there are many types of immunotherapy, here’s how it might work against breast cancer: T cells are the body’s warrior white blood cells, fighting any foreign substances that have infected otherwise healthy cells – such as bacteria, germs, or cancer.

The challenge is, cancer cells are sneaky; masters at the counter-attack, they can also respond to T cells by evolving into cells that don’t trigger T cells’ cancer response. With so much resistance, T cells often quit the battle before every cancer cell is eradicated – thus leaving an opening for cancer to continue to grow and spread.

Via genetic engineering, immunotherapy reprograms a patient’s T cells to identify specific targets on cancer cells, and then to continually destroy those cells. Given by pill or injection, the goal is a single treatment: once reprogrammed, the patient’s own T cells proliferate, and should fight his or her cancer indefinitely, until it’s gone.

Human trials are showing progress

Over the years, many potential cancer cures have been demonstrated in research labs, chiefly on animals. But immunotherapy is different; after decades of study, it’s made its way into 3,400 different ongoing clinical trials involving actual cancer patients. (Peck, 2016)

One especially promising trial involves leukemia and lymphoma patients. According to Andrea Detter of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where the trial is ongoing, 27 of 29 leukemia patients experienced complete remission after T-cell reprogramming and infusion.

More work needed

There’s still a long way to go before immunotherapy proves a valid replacement for chemotherapy. Right now, its side effects can be equally as severe as chemo’s.

But the treatment shows so much promise it's attracted some huge financial backing: billionaire Sean Parker (Napster, Facebook) has pledged $250 million to fund immunotherapy research at six cancer centers. And former New York city mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with Jones Apparel Group's Sidney Kimmel, have each pledged $50 million to Johns Hopkins' new institute for cancer immunotherapy.

Backed by this kind of funding, researchers will continue to refine the T cell reprogramming process. Their goal is to reduce side effects, increase T cells’ effectiveness – and maybe, just maybe, prove that immunotherapy can be one part of the long-awaited cure for breast cancer.

See More Helpful Articles:

Chemotherapy Regimens for Breast Cancer

Chemotherapy: Is It Always the Best Choice?

New Therapy May Prevent Hair Loss Due to Chemo

A Guide to Breast Cancer Treatment

A Guide to Survivorship: Life After Treatment


Park, Alice. "Inside the Brutally Selective, Hugely Expensive, Lifesaving Trials of Immunotherapy." Time, April 4, 2016, 38-42.

Detter, Andrea. "Dramatic Remissions Seen in Immunotherapy Trial of Blood Cancer Patients." Fred Hutch. February 16, 2016. Accessed April 21, 2016.

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.