How Immunotherapy Treats Multiple Myeloma

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Each year, as many as 33,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with multiple myeloma. This type of blood cancer originates in plasma cells, which are specific types of your immune system’s white blood cells that help fight off infections. In healthy individuals, plasma cells make antibodies, or special proteins, that help the body recognize and fend off foreign invaders and other harmful substances.

If you’ve been diagnosed, you may already know immunotherapy for multiple myeloma is a popular treatment choice. In many cases, immunotherapy is used in combination with standard cancer treatments like chemotherapy. One type of immunotherapy, stem cell transplantation from a donor, has been used for more than 30 years as a frontline treatment for those living with multiple myeloma.

But keep in mind your treatment plan will depend on your specific needs and particular medical history. Also, while some treatments are currently available, others are still only accessible through participation in clinical trials. If you’re interested in immunotherapy as a treatment option, talking with your doctor can help you better understand whether this type of therapy may be right for you.

What is Immunotherapy?

Put simply, immunotherapy is a type of medical treatment that uses parts of your own immune system to fight cancer. This is usually accomplished using one of two methods. First, you may receive treatment to encourage your immune system to ramp up its effort to fight cancer cells. Or, you may receive certain immune system cells, such as man-made immune system proteins, from an outside source.

Several types of immunotherapies, including monoclonal antibodies, immune system checkpoint inhibitors, vaccines against cancer, and other immunomodulatory drugs, are used in the treatment of many types of cancer. As our knowledge of multiple myeloma expands, we’re coming to a better understanding of which types of immunotherapy show the most promise against this disease.

Immunotherapy Options for Multiple Myeloma

Currently, multiple myeloma is treated using several types of immunotherapies. Some of these therapies are still only available through clinical trials. If you’re interested in participating in a trial, your doctor can help you with enrollment and answer any questions you may have. If appropriate, you could receive immunotherapy treatment using the following methods:

  • Cancer vaccines: Scientists are working to develop two different vaccines against multiple myeloma. Vaccines containing peptides, or chains of amino acids found in cancer cells, are injected into your bloodstream. There, they stimulate your immune system to begin attacking your cancer.

  • Monoclonal antibodies: Antibodies are proteins normally produced by healthy plasma cells that help your body target and kill foreign or harmful substances, including cancer cells. With this type of immunotherapy, man-made antibodies are delivered into your bloodstream where they identify and destroy multiple myeloma cells.

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors: In healthy individuals, the immune system differentiates harmful substances from healthy tissue cells. This is accomplished through the use of certain “checkpoints”, or specific molecules located on certain immune cells, that must first be activated by a foreign substance to launch an immune system response. In early clinical trails, a promising new type of immune checkpoint inhibitor has been shown to be highly effective in people living with multiple myeloma. This type of immunotherapy uses your immune system’s CAR T-cells to target specific proteins on myeloma cells. Initial results suggest this type of immunotherapy could revolutionize multiple myeloma treatment.

  • Autologous hematopoeitic cell transplant (HCT): A sample of the patient’s own blood is collected and processed in a lab. Growth factors are added to rapidly increase the number of adult stem cells. The new collection of the patient’s own stem cells are re-infused back to the patient (after chemotherapy to kill the myeloma cells) to re-establish normal bone marrow and immune function. This approach is preferred over traditional bone marrow transplantation.

Even though several immunotherapy options for multiple myeloma are still under investigation, initial research suggests these treatments may offer effective solutions for people living with this type of cancer. In the future, immunotherapy may allow you to avoid other, more standard cancer treatments, like chemotherapy. While it may not be possible to receive these treatments at any healthcare center currently, your doctor can help you determine if immunotherapy could benefit you and discuss your options for enrolling in clinical trials.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Feb 11

  1. Multiple myeloma. Mayo Clinic.

  2. Immunotherapy for Multiple Myeloma. Cancer Research Institute.

  3. CAR T Cells: Expanding into Multiple Myeloma. National Cancer Institute.

  4. The Role of Immunotherapy in Multiple Myeloma. Pharmaceuticals.

  5. What is Cancer Immunotherapy? American Cancer Society.

  6. Types of Stem Cell Transplants for Cancer Treatment. American Cancer Society.

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