Monoclonal antibody therapy is a form of targeted treatment that uses lab-created antibodies that find and kill specific cancer cells. Physicians who treat cancer (oncologists) also use monoclonal antibody therapy to boost the immune system’s ability to defend against cancer. Providers can use this treatment on its own or with other treatments.
In monoclonal antibody therapy, healthcare providers use lab-created antibodies to treat many kinds of cancer. When providers treat cancer with monoclonal antibodies, they’re using lab-made antibodies that are clones or exact copies of a specific antibody. These antibodies find and kill specific cancer cells. This treatment also helps immune systems defend against cancer. Providers use this therapy on its own or with other cancer treatments.
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Your antibodies are part of your immune system. Antibodies are proteins that scour your body for signs of intruders (antigens) like infections or cancer cells. Antibodies attach to (bind to) antigens. Then your immune system develops ways to protect your body from similar intruders. Monoclonal antibodies are designed to act like your antibodies.
Monoclonal antibody therapy for cancer mirrors your antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that constantly look for specific antigens. Antibodies work like this:
Monoclonal antibodies are multi-taskers with several strategies for disrupting cancer cells. Here are some ways that monoclonal antibodies can work:
For example, some monoclonal antibodies work by disrupting signals from the cancer cell called the checkpoint system. Your immune checkpoints keep your immune system from overreacting to intruders and destroying healthy tissue by accident. Cancer cells can turn off the system by placing checkpoint proteins on their surface to protect them from immune system assault. Some monoclonal antibodies inhibit these checkpoints, allowing your immune system cells (like T-cells) to eliminate target cancer cells.
Cell therapy treats cancer by introducing new healthy cells into your body. CAR-T cell therapy and bone marrow transplants are examples of cell therapy. Monoclonal antibody therapy, in contrast, introduces lab-made antibodies into your body that work with the cells already in your immune system.
Monoclonal antibody therapy is an effective cancer treatment alone or in combination with other treatments. In most cases, monoclonal antibody treatment doesn't cure cancer. Many times cancer comes back after treatment. Monoclonal antibody therapy delays cancer’s return.
Your healthcare provider may do tests on your blood or cancer cells, including tests to see if certain genes or proteins have changed. Changes in your genes or proteins may affect your treatment.
You can receive monoclonal antibody therapy as an infusion, meaning treatment given in an intravenous (IV) solution injected into your vein.
This treatment lets healthcare providers target cancer without damaging healthy cells. It typically causes fewer side effects than some other cancer treatments. It also helps your immune system to fight cancer.
Like all cancer treatments, monoclonal therapy has side effects:
Some people have sensitivity reactions during their first treatment:
You should call your provider if your treatment side effects are stronger than you anticipated or last longer than you expected.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Healthcare providers are just beginning to understand all the ways that monoclonal antibody therapy may combat cancer. That’s exciting news for people coping with cancer and looking for safe, effective treatment. Monoclonal antibody therapy treats many types of cancer. If you have cancer, ask your provider if this treatment may be right for you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/18/2022.
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