Which diseases have immunotherapies been effective in treating?

Despite its popularity in the news, immunotherapy is not a new modality. As far back as 1911,1 allergy shots were developed, introducing the world to immunotherapy for the first time. In allergen immunotherapy, a patient with a specific allergy is exposed in a controlled way to the allergen, building the body’s immune memory to the allergen. In the 1970s,2 researchers repurposed a tuberculosis vaccine component as a therapy for bladder cancer. BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guerin) is a bacterial pathogen that, when introduced to the luminal side of the bladder, can induce cell death in bladder cancer cells. Diseases with an immune-dysfunction component such as psoriasis or multiple sclerosis have been treated with immune-system modifying drugs for decades. These therapies impair the immune system’s response to self proteins that are misidentified as foreign, minimizing the deleterious inflammatory reaction.

Today, research is ongoing to identify novel immunotherapies to treat previously undruggable diseases and those for which therapeutics exist but induce untenable side effects. Cancer, which fits that categorization despite decades of drug discovery efforts, is receiving a significant attention from researchers and pharmaceutical companies striving to address cancer’s challenges by equipping the patient’s immune system to fight back.

1. M. Berings, et al., “Advances and Highlights in Allergen Immunotherapy: On the Way to Sustained Clinical and Immunlogic Tolerance,” J Allergy Clin Immunol 140(5):1250-1267, 2017.
2. C. Zichi, et al., “Immunotherapy for Patients with Advanced Urothelial Cancer: Current Evidence and Future Perspectives,” Biomed Res Int 2017:5618174, 2017