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What is Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapies are treatments that stimulate the body’s immune system to recognise and fight disease. Immunotherapy is used in the treatment of certain cancers. It was been described by the charity Children with Cancer UK as “the most promising new cancer treatment since the development of chemotherapy in the late 1940s”.

The immune system is highly adept at fighting off all manner of infections, including cancer cells. However, cancer cells are intelligent and can trick the immune system into thinking they are normal tissue and not malignant. Immunotherapy drugs empower the body’s immune system, therefore enabling it to recognise tumour cells and destroy them. 


Types of Immunotherapy

There are different types of immunotherapy, including vaccines, cytokines and checkpoint blockade therapies. These different methods of administration all have their benefits for certain circumstances, so the type of immunotherapy that is best for your child will need to be decided by the medical professionals around you. Where the cancer is, how advanced it is and therefore what the dose should be, as well as multiple other sensitive factors, will need to be considered before one of these is decided on.


Also called therapeutic or treatment vaccines, these work to boost the body’s natural defences to fight cancer. The vaccines may prevent cancer from coming back, destroy any cancer cells still in the body after other treatments or stop a tumour from growing or spreading. Some vaccines are made for each patient from a tumour sample. Other vaccines target specific antigens. They are given to patients whose tumours have those antigens on the surface of the tumour cells. Vaccines are administered every few weeks for a period of time through skin injections.


Proteins that aid cell-to-cell communication in immune responses and stimulate the movement of cells towards sites of inflammation, infection and trauma. They are administered into the skin, or in some situations, through an IV (intravenous) infusion, typically every 2 to 3 weeks. The treatment is commonly administered over 45 to 100 minutes at a time to avoid acute immune reactions.

Checkpoint blockade therapies 

Drugs can block certain proteins made by some types of immune system cells, such as T-cells and some cancer cells. These proteins help keep immune responses in check and can keep T-cells from killing cancer cells. When these proteins are blocked, the “brakes” on the immune system are released and T-cells are able to kill cancer cells better.

Bone marrow transplant 

Bone marrow transplant is often used in the treatment of children with leukaemia. A bone marrow transplant is itself a form of immunotherapy as the donated immune cells help by attacking the patient’s remaining leukaemic cells. This is an effect known as graft versus leukaemia.


What are the side effects of immunotherapy?

When the immune system is bulked up to attack cancerous cells in the body, side effects can occur, usually as a direct consequence of healthy tissues and cells coming under attack too. The type of cancer your child suffers from, as well as their general health prior to treatment, the dosage and the method of administration can all impact the side effects experienced from this biological treatment. From external itching, pain and swelling to weakness, nausea and vomiting, heart palpitations, diarrhoea and more can all be side effects of different types of immunotherapy.


How can Immunotherapy Help My Child?

Traditional treatments used for childhood cancer can be toxic, unpleasant and uncertain as they can produce negative long-term effects. Because immunotherapies work with the body to attack cancer, rather than relying on poisonous substances, they can be less harmful to young bodies than traditional methods like chemo and radiotherapy. However, it can also be used as a powerful combined treatment with other traditional methods, where required with aggressive and hard-to-treat cancers.

Immunotherapy does not help everybody affected by cancer. Currently, only one in five patients gets into remission. Important work is now going on to try to ascertain who will get the benefit and who will not.


How can Tree of Hope help fund immunotherapy treatment?

Tree of Hope helps families raise money for specialist care for children and young people. Therefore, if you think immunotherapy might help your child, or you are already looking to crowdfund to help with the cost of the therapy, get in touch with us to see how we can help. Get in touch by calling us on 01892 535525, while you email us via You can also find out more about what we do on our service offering page.

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