Treatments & Therapies

Immunotherapy – Treatment, Effect & Risks


The human immune system is a biological defense system that protects against disease. Immunotherapy can help stimulate a weakened immune system or suppress an overactive immune system .

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is used when the human immune system fails This can mean that it is no longer able to detect and remove a large number of harmful pathogens or substances, to render the body’s own defective cells harmless, or to distinguish harmful foreign bodies from the body’s own healthy tissue.

The term immunotherapy summarizes different treatment approaches aimed at influencing a failing immune system. Depending on the disease, these therapy methods aim to either strengthen (activate) or weaken (suppress) the immune system.

Immunotherapy can be divided into the following procedures. The stimulating (activating) method strengthens the immune system, while the modulating method alters its response. With suppressive immunotherapy, the immune response is suppressed.

Function, effect & goals

Immunotherapy has become increasingly important in recent decades, particularly in cancer treatment, in the treatment of autoimmune diseases and in organ transplantation.

The term “stimulating immunotherapy” covers a wide range of different procedures and areas of application. These include active vaccinations with dead or live pathogens, which strengthen the normal, healthy immune system and stimulate it to produce antibodies. Immunostimulants can also be given to activate a weakened immune system in cancer patients .

More and more oncologists are pinning their hopes on immunotherapy. In colorectal cancer , for example, active-specific immunotherapy (ASI) is effective, in which a vaccine made from tumor antigens is injected. The immune stimulants interferon and interleukin suppress cell growth, enhance the immune response and are also effective in some types of tumours.

Furthermore, personalized immunotherapy, including treatment with the body’s own dendritic cells, is used in cancer. The aim of the latter method is to destroy a tumor by specifically activating the immune system. Vaccines against cancer -causing viruses and monoclonal antibodies (immunologically active proteins) are being used with increasing success in cancer immunotherapy.

Basically, cancer immunotherapy offers a more targeted, more selective effect against cancer cells compared to traditional chemotherapy or radiation therapy . However, immunotherapy alone is usually not enough to treat cancer, and additional surgery or chemotherapy is required.

For a long time, modulating (specific) immunotherapy has included hyposensitization for the treatment of allergies , the effectiveness of which is particularly high in seasonal allergies such as hay fever . With this form of therapy, the overreacting immune system is accustomed to the allergenic substance by injecting or oral administration of an allergen extract, which reduces the symptoms and ideally makes them disappear.

Suppressive immunotherapy is of paramount importance, especially in organ transplantation. This treatment includes therapies with glucocorticoids , cytostatics and antibodies (immunoglobulins). The aim of this treatment is to ensure that a transplanted organ is not rejected again. Long- term medication with immunosuppressants to be taken by the patient for life suppresses the defense reaction of the immune system against the implanted organ.

Other areas of application for suppressive immunotherapy are the numerous autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes mellitus , multiple sclerosis , Bechterew’s disease , Crohn’s disease and rheumatism . These diseases are triggered by an overreaction of the immune system, which mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissue as if it were a foreign body, thereby causing severe inflammation and organ damage. Here, immunotherapy dampens the activity of the immune system.

Risks, side effects & dangers

Depending on the type of immunotherapy and the condition of the patient, the side effects and risks of the treatment vary.

Allergy patients who are administered an allergen, i.e. an allergy-triggering substance, in the form of a modulating immunotherapy, are at risk of an allergic reaction, which is mostly mild, but which in the worst case can result in an allergic shock with a sometimes fatal outcome. For this reason, hyposensitization must always take place under medical supervision.

A suppressive immunotherapy, which is often permanent and lifelong, for example in the case of an organ transplant, can also have serious side effects and dangers. Basically, this therapy weakens the patient’s physical defense system and makes them susceptible to a variety of infections.

In the long term, the risk of developing cancer also increases in those treated due to the weakened immune system. However, these side effects and dangers of immunotherapy must always be seen in the context of its benefit. Immunotherapies are not miracle cures, but in principle they offer the chance of an increased quality of life and a longer lifespan.

Lisa Newlon
 | Website

Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.