Immuno-Oncology Education

What is Immuno-Oncology [IO]?

Immuno-oncology [IO] is a type of treatment that uses drugs called cancer immunotherapies with the specific purpose of activating your immune system to treat cancer.  It has become a cornerstone of cancer therapy along with the traditional treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Immunotherapy is an innovative area of research in cancer treatments that seeks to help fight cancer by using the body’s own immune system to combat the disease. The goal of [IO] is to address the need for long-term survival in patients with advanced cancers and is another option for people living with cancer.  Immunotherapies will be the backbone of cancer treatment in 60% of cancer types.1   These therapies do not work for everyone and ongoing research is trying to understand what makes a patient respond to the treatment. Please ensure to discuss with your healthcare team to see if immunotherapy is right for you.

What is Immuno-Oncology [infographic]  [print PDF]

While some therapies work on an ‘overall’ basis, some are very specific.2

Types of immunotherapies include:

  1. Monoclonal antibodies-These act like the antibodies your body produces naturally and are designed to target a specific protein in the cancer cells.
  2. Immune checkpoint inhibitors-Specific type of cancer drug that allows the immune system to destroy cancer cells. [infographic]  [print PDF]
  3. Cell Therapy (CAR-T) [infographic]  [print PDF]
  4. Cancer Vaccines– A method of exposing the immune system to the antigen which then triggers the immune system to recognize and destroy the antigen.  These are still uncommon, but many are being studied in clinical trials.
  5. Virus therapy

The immune system is the human body’s natural defense system.  It is a network of organs, cells, and molecules throughout the human body. Its role is to protect the body from harmful foreign invaders like germs, viruses and diseases like cancer. When the immune system finds a foreign substance, it takes action and responds to find and destroy abnormal cells, including cancer cells.

Cancerous cells are actually quite common in the body. When they form in the body, the immune system works to find and fight the cancer cells by activating an immune response that involves several different types of cells, including a kind of white blood cell called a T-Cell. These cells work to find and destroy the abnormal cancer cells.

Normally, an immune response would work as it is meant to by finding and destroying the cancerous cells.  Sometimes though, cancer cells can undergo changes and they often find ways to disguise themselves as normal cells or to mutate so that the immune system won’t attack them, allowing the cancerous cells to grow and spread.

Immuno-Oncology research is looking at how to work with the immune system so that immune responses, including T cells, can do what they are supposed to do which is its job of destroying cancerous cells.

The concept of Immuno-Oncology goes back to the 18th century, when the possibility of using the body’s immune response to help fight diseases began to be explored. Initially, immunotherapy was used to help control diseases other than cancer, but the idea has since spread to involve the world of oncology.


1796 First use of immunotherapy to control smallpox.

1863 First connection between inflammation and cancer

1890 Cancer immunotherapy first documented

1909 Proposal that immune system supresses tumours “Immune Surveillance”

1978 First time a biologic was tested on a human to treat cancer

1986 First immuno-oncology treatment was approved for cancer in the form of Interferon Alpha, a class of immune regulators, to be administered in patients with Hairy Cell leukemia, chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), melanoma, and AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma 3

1997 Rebirth of immuno-oncology

1998 Approval of immune-oncology therapies for various tumours

2015+ Hundreds of immune-oncology trials are underway

Immuno-oncology (I-O) therapies are expected to become one of the cornerstones of cancer therapy in the years to come.  There is a considerable amount of research underway that studies [I-O] approaches across various types of cancers. The hope is that this research may possibly lead to additional [I-O] therapies and treatment options for different cancer types.

These therapies do not work for everyone and ongoing research is trying to understand what makes a patient respond to the treatment. Please discuss with your healthcare team to see if immunotherapy is right for you.

How is Immuno-oncology different from other cancer treatments?


a treatment that uses drugs called cancer immunotherapies to activate the cells of your immune system that attack cancer cells, but it might also harm healthy cells.

a treatment that uses the immune system to combat diseases like cancer.  The therapies can be vaccines, allergy treatment, and more.

an invasive procedure that removes tumour tissue. Can sometimes leave cancerous cells behind

a treatment that uses drugs to attack rapidly dividing cancer cells t stop their growth. However, the treatment might also injure healthy cells that are rapidly dividing.

Radiation therapy
a treatment that uses intense energy to target the cancer site. Even with careful planning, this therapy can still hurt healthy cells.

Targeted therapy
a treatment that uses drugs to attack cancer cells more specifically than chemotherapy. Targeted therapy might damage healthy cells.