Immunotherapy is a type of treatment for leukemia that works by prompting the body’s own immune system to identify and destroy cancerous cells. Ordinarily, the immune system protects the body against bacteria, viruses, allergens and other foreign bodies. But, by programming it to also locate and attack cells that have cancerous characteristics (such as certain tumor-specific proteins on their surfaces), immunotherapy can be used as a treatment for leukemia and other hematological malignancies.
Types of leukemia
There are several different types of leukemia. Not all leukemias are responsive to the same type of immunotherapy, and some types of leukemia may not be appropriate for immunotherapy at the present time.
The main types of leukemia include:
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia – This is the most common form of leukemia diagnosed in children.
- Acute myelogenous leukemia – This is the most common type of leukemia affecting both adults and children.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia – This is the most prevalent form of chronic leukemia affecting adults.
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia – This is slow-progressing type mainly affects adults and may produce few or no symptoms for months or even years.
Types of immunotherapy used for treating leukemia
There are several types of immunotherapy that can be used for leukemia treatment. These include:
- Allogeneic bone marrow transplant
- Therapeutic cancer vaccines
- T-cell therapies
- Monoclonal antibody therapies
- Donor lymphocyte infusions
Just as all chemotherapy drugs work slightly differently, each type of immunotherapy is unique as well. T-cell therapies, for instance, are used to genetically modify a patient’s T cells so that they can more effectively identify cancerous cells. Monoclonal antibodies (which are sometimes linked to toxins that can directly kill leukemia cells) target and attack specific proteins on the surface of the leukemia cell. Donor lymphocyte infusions use immune cells from a transplant donor to target cancerous cells that remain in the body after chemotherapy, while vaccines work in a similar manner but use specially created compounds to trigger an immune response.
When considering immunotherapy as a treatment for leukemia, it’s important to evaluate a number of patient-specific factors to determine which option (or options) to use. At Moffitt Cancer Center, our hematologists and oncologists create individualized treatment plans that feature a wide variety of treatments. Immunotherapy may be offered as a solo treatment or in combination with other treatments (such as chemotherapy) and sometimes as follow-up to chemotherapy (i.e. “maintenance” therapy). Many types of immunotherapy are also offered in the setting of a clinical trial.
“T-cell therapies such as chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR-T) and bispecific T cell engager (BiTE) have shown remarkable effectiveness against certain types of leukemia,” says Onyee Chan, MD, Malignant Hematology.
To learn more about immunotherapy for leukemia, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. Our hematologists and oncologists can provide you with more information about your treatment options. A physician’s referral is not required.