How Immunotherapy Works

Building up the body’s innate defenses

Cancer and other diseases are able to thrive in part because their cells evade the body’s natural defense system. Cell-based immunotherapy seeks to reboot the immune system to seek out and attack these disease cells.

T cells—a type of immune cell—are extracted from a patient and engineered in a laboratory to recognize specific antigens on tumor cells through the insertion of a chimeric antigen receptor.

Infographic on how cell-based immunotherapies work, depicting the process of extracting T-cells from a patient’s blood sample, re-programming the T-cells to attack disease cells, and infusing the new cells back into the patient.

Such modified T cells are known as chimeric T cells, or CAR T cells. Thousands of the CAR T cells are created and infused into the patient’s bloodstream. The cells act as a living drug that hunts down and kills cancer cells.

Importantly, these reprogrammed immune cells survive in the body for years, constantly patrolling for cancer cells and attacking them as they appear.

 The beauty of immunotherapy—unlike chemotherapy—is that it is a living drug. Using re-engineered T cells to treat cancer has fundamentally changed outcomes for leukemia and multiple myeloma patients.

Kelvin Lee, MD — Director, IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center


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