Harnessing Your Body's Defenses to Fight Your Cancer

What is immunotherapy?

Your immune system is a formidable defense. It responds to foreign invaders, like bacteria and viruses, with a targeted response to keep you healthy. Cancer researchers have developed treatments that activate or turn on your immune system to fight cancer cells throughout your body — an approach called "immunotherapy." Over the past decade alone, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several new immunotherapy drugs for advanced cancers such as metastatic melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, and renal cell carcinoma. And many more are being evaluated in clinical trials. In addition to surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapies, immunotherapy is considered the "fifth pillar" of cancer treatment.

Why is immunotherapy important?

For years, we have wondered why the immune system does not fight cancer. Several recent discoveries have shown us why. While your immune system identifies bacteria, viruses, and other invaders as foreign, your cancer cells are your own cells that have developed abnormally. As a result, the immune system may not see them as foreign, enabling the cancer cells to evade detection and destruction by your immune system. Immunotherapies are designed to help your immune system "see" cancer cells so they can be destroyed. Some cancer cells suppress the immune response; we now have immunotherapies that work by taking this power away from cancer cells, allowing the immune system to kick into gear.

With these discoveries, for the first time, we have ways to turn on the immune system to attack cancer cells, wherever they may be in the body. This may represent the greatest advance in medicine in 100 years. By discovering how to turn on the immune system with specific drugs, we are now curing cancers that were not curable just five years ago, and expanding our approaches for treating cancer in ways that were unheard of until recently.

What kinds of immunotherapy does NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital offer?

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital is a world leader in cancer care and immunotherapy. We have a robust clinical research program featuring many clinical trials evaluating new immunotherapies and novel ways of combining immunotherapy with other cancer treatments. The only way patients can access these specialized treatments is through these pivotal clinical studies, which are typically found only at academic medical centers such as NewYork-Presbyterian. You may be eligible to participate in a clinical trial.

We provide immunotherapy and conduct clinical trials for patients with all types of cancer at both the Weill Cornell Medicine Meyer Cancer Center in Partnership with NewYork-Presbyterian and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center's National Cancer Institute-designated Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center. Examples of our care and our research include:

Approved Immunotherapies

Our investigators were involved in the evaluation of several of the immunotherapy drugs that have been approved by the FDA.

  • We offer immunotherapies for many types of cancer, including melanoma, lung cancer, kidney cancer, breast cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, bladder cancer, and prostate cancer.
  • Our patients receive these treatments in our modern and comfortable infusion suites from an experienced and compassionate staff.

Promising Investigational Approaches

  • Dedicated Phase I Clinical Trials Unit: NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia has a special clinical research program focused on Phase I clinical trials — the first phase of testing a new drug in people. Patients enrolled in these studies receive their treatment in a dedicated unit, staffed by specialists with the experience and skills required to care for these patients and conduct these studies. Patients in our Phase I studies also undergo genetic analysis of their tumors, providing information that helps us determine the best therapies for them.
  • CAR T-Cell Therapy for Leukemia: Our Weill Cornell Medicine investigators at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell are exploring the use of donated T cells that have been treated in the laboratory to recognize and kill acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) cells. T cells from a healthy donor are genetically modified to express a protein called a "chimeric antigen receptor" (CAR) and would then be given to a patient with AML, where they would attach to and kill the leukemia cells. This immunotherapy is in the earliest stages of assessment and will eventually be available to patients.
  • Who Benefits from Immunotherapy: While new immunotherapy drugs are available for people with different types of cancer, not all patients respond well to these treatments. Our scientists are working to find out why by closely examining tumor genetics in responders and non-responders to cancer immunotherapies using "next-generation sequencing" tools such as the Columbia Combined Cancer Panel, which assesses alterations in more than 460 genes related to cancer.  
  • Lung Cancer Immunotherapy: Weill Cornell Medicine scientists at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell have found that lung cancer attracts circulating immune cells, reprogramming them to support its growth and spread. Understanding how this happens will allow doctors to design treatments that either prevent or reverse these events. NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia has the strongest lung cancer immunotherapy program in the nation, offering more clinical trials in this area than any other center.
  • Prostate Cancer Immunotherapy: Weill Cornell Medicine researchers at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell developed a monoclonal antibody that targets prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA), a protein expressed by nearly all prostate cancers.  An internationally recognized clinical trials program using this antibody has demonstrated significant antitumor activity in men with prostate cancer.
  • Radiation and Immunotherapy: Our Weill Cornell Medicine radiation oncology team at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell includes world leaders in the study of an interesting phenomenon called the "abscopal effect," where a tumor treated with radiation therapy releases proteins called antigens as tumor cells are dying. These antigens can provoke an immune response against the cancer cells, which could be further intensified by adding immunotherapy drugs to the patient's treatment.
  • Cancer Vaccines: NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia's specialists are evaluating different types of "vaccines" to stimulate an immune response against gliomas and other cancers. Cancer vaccines are customized based on each patient's tumor and are designed to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.


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