What to Expect with Immunotherapy

St. Jude physician Dr. Talleur talking to female patient in hallway.

What is Immunotherapy?

St. Jude focuses on a form of immunotherapy, which is also called cellular therapy. It is different from chemotherapy (chemo). Instead of using chemo to kill cancer cells, immunotherapy uses the body’s immune system to fight the cancer cells. Doctors will take immune cells from the patients’ or donors’ blood, train the cells to recognize and kill the cancerous or infected cells, and then infuse these cells back your child.

The immune system finds and gets rid of viruses, bacteria, cancer cells and other foreign substances in the body. When healthy cells mutate to become cancerous, they can also hide from our body’s natural defenses. The immune system may not recognize tumor cells as foreign or may not be strong enough to kill these cells.

Immunotherapy comes in many different forms. One type boosts the overall immune system, while another trains the immune system to find and kill specific cancer cells. Sometimes doctors combine other forms of treatment, like chemo and bone marrow transplant, with immunotherapy to pack a bigger punch against the cancer cells.

Immunotherapy also has some different side effects than what you would expect from chemo. Side effects can include:

  • Fever
  • Inflammation
  • Weakness
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  •  Headache
  • Low blood pressure
  • Skin rash and itching
  • Breathing difficulties

One type of cellular therapy St. Jude uses to treat patients is called CAR T cell. For this type of treatment, St. Jude collects white blood cells from your child or someone else. This process is called apheresis. In the laboratory, T cells, a type of immune cells, are isolated from the collected while blood cells. These T cells are then engineered to recognize and kill tumor cells by adding a structure/part called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), turning them into CAR T cells. These CAR T cells then undergo careful testing before they are given patients.

Learn more about CAR T-cell therapy >