Biological Therapy | Immunological Therapy

interferon vials
Vials of Interferon

In general, biological therapy refers to any cancer treatment that augments the response of the patient's immune system1—whether by repairing it, stimulating it, or enhancing it. Consequently, biological therapy is also known as immunological therapy.

To date, this treatment type includes an ever-growing constellation of therapies, including Interferons and Interleukins, colony-stimulating factors (CSF), monoclonal antibodies, cancer vaccines, and gene therapy.

What it's effective for and why

The many faces of biological therapy address many facets of cancer.

Interferons and Interleukins are cytokines, small proteins that affect the communications between cells2, are used to treat kidney cancer, leukemia and melanoma.

Monoclonal antibodies are drugs designed to seek out certain proteins expressed on the outer surface of certain cancer cells, and kill those cells.

Cancer vaccines work as 'active specific immunotherapeutic agents', meaning that they 'activate' the patient's immune system and target a 'specific' antigen in the tumor.3

Gene therapy hopes to treat cancer by manipulating genes in the cells of tumors, lymphocytes, and other cells. Colony-stimulating factors (CSF) don't actually fight tumor growth, but they do prevent infections in patients undergoing certain anti-cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants.

Side effects: Overview

Despite the fact that biological therapies employ substances naturally found in the body—contrary to, say, chemotherapy agents—side effects are common, and can most often be attributed to a "revving up and stimulation" of the patient's immune system,4 leading to fever, fatigue, nausea/vomiting, and loss of appetite, among others. Since all current biological agents and treatments currently approved by the FDA are relatively new, we are still learning about how they work, the side effects they cause, and effective methods of managing or mitigating those side effects. In other words, biological therapy is a work-in-progress.


  1. National Cancer Institute: Biological therapy
  2. MedicineNet: Cytokines
  3. Ko, Andrew H MD et al. 2008. Everyone's Guide to Cancer Therapy, Fifth Ed. Kansas City. Andres McMeel Publishing LLC.
  4. OncoLink: Biological therapies

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