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Immunotherapy for Cancer: Nonspecific

Immunotherapy is a way of treating disease or infection using the body’s immune system. It can be used in some cases to help treat cancer. One form of immunotherapy treatment for cancer is called nonspecific immunotherapy (NSI). This sheet tells you more about NSI treatments and how they are used.

How Immunotherapy Works

The immune system is the body’s defense against disease and infection. One part of the system makes special proteins called antibodies. These proteins are designed to attack foreign substances that enter the body. Each antibody is specific to a substance. It recognizes and attacks only that substance. Some immunotherapy treatments help treat cancer by targeting specific parts of cancer cells. NSI treatments work differently. They boost the immune system’s overall ability to fight more effectively against cancer cells. NSI treatments mainly involve the use of manufactured immune system proteins called cytokines. These proteins help immune system cells communicate. They also help control the immune system’s response to cancer cells.

Types of NSI Treatments

NSI treatments include:

  • Interferons. These stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells. They can stop cancer cells from growing and spreading.

  • Interleukins. These promote the growth of certain immune system cells to help fight cancer.

  • Colony-stimulating factors. These promote the growth of blood cells in the bone marrow. This helps increase the number of white blood cells in the body. White blood cells help the body fight against cancer cells.

Currently, only a couple types of cancer respond to NSI treatment. Research continues to look for ways of using NSI for other types of cancer.

How NSI Treatments Are Given

NSI treatments can be given different ways. Some are injected just under the skin. Others are given through an IV line. With this method, a thin plastic needle is put into a vein in the arm. Or, a thin tube (catheter) is placed into a larger vein in the body. The treatments may be done at a hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office. The number of treatments and their length depends on many factors. This includes the type of NSI and the type of cancer being treated.

Possible Side Effects of NSI Treatments

NSI treatments may cause side effects. These may include:

  • Fatigue (tiredness)

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Low blood pressure

  • Fast heart rate

  • Severe swelling

  • Rash

  • Weakness

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Dizziness

  • Allergic reaction, such as rash and hives

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Changes to blood counts

  • Confusion

  • Loss of appetite

Other side effects can also occur. Your doctor can tell you more about what side effects to expect and how to manage them. If needed, medications can be prescribed to treat some side effects. Your health care team can also teach you ways to help cope with side effects.

Resources

To learn more about NSI treatments, go to: American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org

Online Medical Reviewer: Choi, Minsig, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Eisenberg, Seth, RN, OCN
Last Review Date: 8/31/2012
© 2000-2014 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.