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Cancer Immunotherapy: Past, Present, and Future

By boosting the body’s natural defenses, immunotherapy has helped countless people in their fight against cancer since the late 1800s. There are several different types of immunotherapy, including T cell therapy, monoclonal antibodies, cancer vaccines, and more.

But how did this powerful form of cancer treatment originate? Regional Cancer Care Associates breaks down cancer immunotherapy’s history and how this modality has transformed into the life-changing medicine it is today.

The Dawning of Immunotherapy

The first use of immunotherapy can be traced as far back as the late 1800s. At that time, German physicians W. Busch and Friedrich Fehleisen injected Streptococcus bacteria into several patients’ tumors, and this act led to complete remission for several types of cancers. This finding was confirmed in 1909 by an American surgeon, William B. Coley, MD, who helped spark a long line of immunotherapy research that is still ongoing.

At around the same time, German researcher Paul Ehrlich developed the side chain (receptor) theory, which laid the groundwork for our modern knowledge about drug-specific receptors. Thanks to each of these pioneering researchers, immunotherapy has developed into a promising mode of cancer treatment.


One of the biggest breakthroughs for cancer immunotherapy occurred in 1957, when Lewis Thomas and Frank M. Burnet proposed their theory of cancer immunosurveillance. Essentially, they suggested that lymphocytes, or white blood cells in the immune system, act as watchdogs that identify and destroy mutated cells in our bodies. One implication of their work was that these lymphocytes could be manipulated to destroy harmful cancer cells.

Today, Thomas and Burnet’s theory has been refined into what is known as cancer immunoediting. This complex process involves three major phases, including:

  • Elimination: when early tumor cells are destroyed by the immune system
  • Equilibrium: the modification, or equilibrium, of existing tumor cells by the immune system
  • Escape: when tumors avoid the immune system’s recognition by using their own cells for growth, invasion, and more

Monoclonal Antibodies

As mentioned, many different immunotherapies are available. One of these, monoclonal antibodies, involve the use of artificial antibodies that can help your body fight off infection. They were first discovered in 1975 by researchers César Milstein & Georges Köhler, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in physiology in 1984 for their significant contributions to the field of science. In essence, physicians can attach monoclonal antibodies to select proteins on cancer cells, which helps your immune system target and eliminate them.

Modern Cancer Immunotherapy

Currently, researchers are pursuing modalities such as checkpoint inhibitors and adoptive T cell therapy, both of which have considerable promise for the future of cancer immunotherapy. These and other forms of immunotherapy are being developed in clinical trials, which deepen our knowledge of how medications and procedures can target specific types of cancer. As time progresses, more clinical trials are producing findings that improve our understanding of cancer and how to beat it.

Immunotherapy with Regional Cancer Care Associates

As new ground continues to be broken in cancer research, oncologists are finding new ways of using immunotherapy to treat cancer. By learning more about the history of cancer immunotherapy, you can become more informed during your discussions with your doctor and your independent cancer research. To find out more, call or visit a Regional Cancer Care Associates location near you.

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For more information or to schedule an appointment,
call 844-346-7222. You can also schedule an appointment by calling the RCCA location nearest you.


Regional Cancer Care Associates is one of fewer than 200 medical practices in the country selected to participate in the Oncology Care Model (OCM); a recent Medicare initiative aimed at improving care coordination and access to and quality of care for Medicare beneficiaries undergoing chemotherapy treatment.