Biologic Therapies for Cancer

Biologic therapies use your body’s own power to treat cancer. These therapies use your body's immune system to get rid of cancer or to lessen treatment side effects. Sometimes they even kickstart your immune system.

We turn to biologic therapies when other treatments don’t work. These therapies also work on tumor types we know your immune system can destroy.

What Do Biologic Therapies Do?

Biologic therapies improve your body’s response to cancer in a number of ways. They can:

  • Get rid of conditions that allow cells to grow uncontrollably
  • Help your immune system stop the growth of cancer cells
  • Make cancer cells easier for your immune cells to destroy
  • Make cancer cells grow like normal cells, to make them less likely to spread
  • Block the process that changes a normal cell into a cancer cell
  • Help repair normal cells damaged by chemo or radiation therapy
  • Prevent a cancer cell from spreading to other parts of your body

Types of Biologic Therapy

Cells release proteins called cytokines. These cytokines help cells communicate. They boost your immune system and identify good or bad cells.

The most common biologic therapies use cytokines. These include:

  • Interferons (IFN)
  • Interleukins (IL)
  • Colony-stimulating factors (CSF)
  • Monoclonal antibodies (mAb)


IFN occur naturally in the body. Researchers have found that interferons help the immune system fight cancer cells. IFNs slow cell growth and encourage normal cell behavior. Interferons treat:

  • Some leukemias
  • Kaposi's sarcoma


ILs occur naturally in the body. We can also make them in a lab. ILs help many cancer-killing immune cells grow and helps your antibodies do their job.

We use ILs for:

  • Metastatic kidney cancer 
  • Melanoma

Colony-stimulating Factors

Many cancer treatments can reduce how many blood cells you have. This raises your risk of infection, anemia, and bleeding problems.

CSFs don’t affect cancer cells directly. Instead, CSFs help make new red blood cells and white blood cells. These new blood cells reduce:

  • Infection risks
  • Transfusions

CSFs can also increase the number of stem cells in your body. That means we can use CSFs to prepare you for a stem cell transplant.

Monoclonal Antibodies

We create mAbs in a lab. We can use them to:

  • Rehab your immune system
  • Interrupt the growth of cancer cells
  • Tag cancer cells and alert the immune system to destroy them
  • Possibly help destroy cancer cells in bone marrow (during a bone marrow transplant)

We can use mAbs to treat:

  • Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • Breast cancer (with a lot of HER-2 protein in the tumor)
  • Colon and rectal cancers
  • Head and neck cancers
  • Brain tumors
  • Kidney cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Melanoma
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia

Biologics Side Effects

The side effects depend on the type of biologic therapy.


At the beginning of therapy, you’ll most likely feel some flu-like symptoms, such as:

  • Chills
  • Headaches
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Discomfort

After a few weeks of IFN therapy, you could get these chronic side effects:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of concentration
  • Decreased blood counts
  • Protein in your urine
  • Low blood pressure

Less common side effects:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Altered taste
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Memory problems


Common side effects include:

  • Flu-like symptoms—chills, fever, fatigue, headache, and muscle pain and joint pain
  • GI issues like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and decreased appetite

Other side effects include:

  • Red, dry, or itchy skin, with or without a rash
  • Low blood pressure, rapid heart rate, heart arrhythmia, fluid retention, and weight gain
  • Confusion, disorientation, drowsiness, lethargy, anxiety, depression, and irritability
  • Changes in blood cell counts that can lead to anemia
  • Problems with kidney function
  • Hypothyroidism

Colony-stimulating Factors

CSF therapy can cause bone pain. But mostly, it doesn’t cause side effects.

Monoclonal Antibodies

You could get an allergic reaction to these antibodies.

Watch for:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Sweating
  • Discomfort
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Itchiness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Low blood pressure

Also look out for serum sickness, which causes:

  • Hives
  • Itchiness
  • Joint pain
  • Swollen glands
  • Flu-like symptoms