Biotherapy for cancer

Topic Overview

What is biotherapy?

Biotherapy, or biologic therapy, is treatment that uses living substances to treat disease. The substance may be a natural part of the body. Or it may be made in a lab, rather than by nature. For example, DNA or an antibody could be used in biotherapy.

Why is biotherapy used for cancer?

Biotherapy can treat the cancer itself or side effects of cancer treatment. The treatments work in different ways and are used for many types of cancer. Biotherapy can be used on its own, with other types of biotherapy, or with traditional treatments for cancer, such as chemotherapy or radiation.

What types of biotherapy are used?

There are many types of biotherapy for cancer. Some have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Other types are still being researched. For these types of biotherapy, you may have to join a clinical trial to use them.

Immunotherapy and gene therapy are two types of biotherapy.


Immunotherapy uses the body's own immune system to treat an illness. This type of treatment can restore, boost, or redirect the immune system. Immunotherapy includes:

  • Cytokines. These are proteins made by the immune system to help cells communicate. They include:
    • Interferons and interleukins. These kill cancer cells to slow the spread of disease or activate (wake up) the immune system to fight the disease.
    • Colony-stimulating factors (granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factors, or GM-CSF). These cause the bone marrow to make more immune system cells and blood cells.
  • Monoclonal antibodies. This type of medicine finds a certain protein on the surface of some cells and locks onto it (like a key in a lock). This may then trigger the body's immune system to attack and destroy those cells.
  • Vaccines. Vaccines help the body's immune system find and attack cancer cells. They may be used to treat people who already have cancer. Or they may be used to protect people from getting some forms of cancer. Vaccines that can be used include:
    • Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
    • Bacillus Calmette-Guerin, or BCG.

Gene therapy

Gene therapy is a way to treat or prevent disease caused by abnormal genes. It can be done in several ways. A normal gene may be inserted to replace a gene that isn't working. An abnormal gene may be repaired. Or changes can be made to the gene so it doesn't continue to cause problems.

What are some questions to ask about biotherapy for cancer?

Some types of biotherapy have been studied or used longer than other types. It is important to ask your doctor about the research behind a type of biotherapy, why it might help you, and how likely it is to help you. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Is biotherapy available? (Not all cancer doctors or cancer centres have access to biotherapy.)
  • Why do you recommend this type of biotherapy?
  • How long has this type of biotherapy been used to treat cancer like mine?
  • How will this treatment help me?
  • What happens during the treatment? How long will it take? How often and where do I get it?
  • What are the short- and long-term side effects?
  • Will my provincial health plan pay for it?
  • Are there any clinical trials I could get into?
  • Do you recommend any other treatment along with this?


Current as of: August 22, 2019

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Brian D. O'Brien MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine

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