Biological therapy for cancer is a type of treatment that uses the body's immune system to kill cancer cells.

Biological therapy for cancer is used in the treatment of many types of cancer to prevent or slow tumor growth and to prevent the spread of cancer. Biological therapy for cancer often causes fewer toxic side effects than other cancer treatments.

How biological therapy works

The goal of biological therapy for cancer is to induce your immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells.

Your body's immune system fights invaders, such as germs, throughout your body. Your immune system should also recognize cancer cells as abnormal, but it doesn't always do that. Cancer cells can develop an ability to hide from immune system cells. Or cancer cells can disable or inhibit immune system cells from acting.

In general, biological therapies work in one of two ways:

  • Inducing the immune system to attack cancer cells. There are several ways biological therapy treatments can achieve this goal. As an example, chemicals that stimulate your immune system cells could be injected into your body. Or a sample of your immune system cells could be trained in a lab to attack cancer cells before being reintroduced to your body.
  • Making cancer cells easier for your immune system to recognize. Biological therapy can also target the cancer cells, turning on or off cell signals that help them elude the immune system cells.

Types of biological therapy

Several types of biological therapy exist, including:

  • Adoptive cell transfer
  • Angiogenesis inhibitors
  • Bacillus Calmette-Guerin therapy
  • Biochemotherapy
  • Cancer vaccines
  • Cytokine therapy
  • Gene therapy
  • Immunoconjugates
  • Monoclonal antibodies
  • Oncolytic virus therapy
  • Targeted drug therapy

Many types of biological therapy are available only in clinical trials. Biological therapy for cancer is a very active area of cancer research.

  • Collaboration. At Mayo Clinic, oncologists, pathologists and radiologists work as a multidisciplinary team to provide whole-person care for people considering biological therapy for cancer. Other professionals are included as needed.
  • Expertise. Mayo Clinic doctors have made important contributions to biological therapy research and are respected for the expertise in this area. The knowledge and experience of Mayo Clinic doctors means they're able to provide you with the best care.
  • Access to the latest research. Mayo Clinic is a leader in translating knowledge gained from cancer research into effective, personalized care for people with cancer. Your cancer treatment plan will take into account the most up-to-date information.
  • Comprehensive cancer center. Mayo Clinic Cancer Center meets strict standards for a National Cancer Institute comprehensive cancer center, which recognizes scientific excellence and a multidisciplinary approach to cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., are ranked among the Best Hospitals for cancer by U.S. News & World Report. Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla, is ranked high performing for cancer by U.S. News & World Report. Mayo Clinic also ranks among the Best Children's Hospitals for cancer.

At Mayo Clinic, we assemble a team of specialists who take the time to listen and thoroughly understand your health issues and concerns. We tailor the care you receive to your personal health care needs. You can trust our specialists to collaborate and offer you the best possible outcomes, safety and service.

Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit medical institution that reinvests all earnings into improving medical practice, research and education. We're constantly involved in innovation and medical research, finding solutions to improve your care and quality of life. Your doctor or someone on your medical team is likely involved in research related to your condition.

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Mayo Clinic works with hundreds of insurance companies and is an in-network provider for millions of people. In most cases, Mayo Clinic doesn't require a physician referral. Some insurers require referrals or may have additional requirements for certain medical care. All appointments are prioritized on the basis of medical need.

At Mayo Clinic, oncologists work with a multidisciplinary team of experts to care for people considering biological therapy for cancer.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 800-446-2279 (toll-free) 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

At Mayo Clinic, oncologists work with a multidisciplinary team of experts to care for people considering biological therapy for cancer.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 904-953-0853 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

At Mayo Clinic, oncologists work with a multidisciplinary team of experts to care for people considering biological therapy for cancer.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 507-538-3270 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

See information on patient services at the three Mayo Clinic locations, including transportation options and lodging.

Mayo Clinic doctors and scientists in the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Program are pursuing cutting-edge research to better understand the interaction between the immune system and cancer cells. Researchers are studying new ways to prevent and treat cancer with biological therapy.

Cancer research is conducted in coordination with the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center. The Mayo Clinic Cancer Center receives funding from the National Cancer Institute and is designated as a comprehensive cancer center — recognition for an institution's scientific excellence and multidisciplinary resources focused on cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

See a list of publications by Mayo Clinic authors on biological therapy for cancer on PubMed, a service of the National Library of Medicine.

Dec. 05, 2014