Harnessing the Immune System to Potentially Revolutionize Cancer Treatment for Patients

This year alone, nearly 1.7 million new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in the United States. 1 A patient newly diagnosed with cancer, after absorbing the unwanted news from his or her physician, will want to know, “What treatments will I need? Where do I begin?”

The standards of care for many types of cancers have long been chemotherapy, radiation, and more recently targeted therapies, all of which may be associated with potentially harsh side effects. An emerging treatment option now being studied in a variety of cancers works very differently; it actually works by harnessing and boosting your body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells invading the body. While this may sound a bit like science fiction, this new approach, called Immuno-Oncology (IO), could offer patients highly personalized new treatment options, and is triggering a lot of buzz and scientific exchange in the world of cancer treatment.

Can IO really help to shift the entire cancer treatment paradigm? Let’s take a closer look at what IO is and why there’s so much hope for patients within this new, potential treatment option.

What is IO?

The immune system is a special collection of cells, organs and tissues responsible for protecting the body against threats like cancer. If cancer cells appear in the body, the immune system should work to recognize these cells and destroy them, however cancer cells can remain hidden from the immune system, which is one problem that IO is working to address.

What surprises many people about IO is that unlike traditional cancer therapies such as chemotherapy or radiation, this treatment course does not directly target the cancer. Instead, it activates and directs the immune system to fight cancer by enabling the immune system to selectively identify and destroy hidden cancer cells, in essence boosting the body’s own natural, cancer-fighting abilities.

AstraZeneca’s IO Focus

Our scientists are intensely focused on research around the many ways that cancer grows and spreads within the body. Through our work in IO, we have found that these therapies are helping to make our body a better cancer fighter by boosting the capabilities of our immune system, which could ultimately lead to longer-lasting remissions. Our research is uncovering different areas of the immune system that appear to have an impact on the body’s ability to discover and attack cancer cells, and we are committed to also researching the safety and tolerability of potential IO therapies across these different areas – a unique and scientifically rigorous endeavor.

Based on this research, we’re beginning to answer the question of how to effectively combine treatments to target cancer from a variety of angles, in ways that work best with the unique traits of each individual person’s body. Because different treatments target different areas of the immune system, we can customize treatments specifically to each patient’s tumor characteristics. Testing for specific traits within a person’s body, also known as biomarkers, through the use of companion diagnostic tools has helped us bring the right investigational IO therapies to patients based on their bodies’ unique characteristics.

The Hope and Potential for IO

The potential of IO is highly anticipated, as it could provide a long-awaited consequential difference in the lives of cancer patients. We are excited about the possibilities that lie ahead, and our hope is to eventually eliminate cancer as a cause of death. 

With an IO drug development program that includes 7,000 patients in 19 late-stage clinical trials across multiple tumor types, stages of disease and lines of therapy, we’re working tirelessly to deliver the right treatment at the right time for the right patient. We believe IO has the potential to completely change the way in which cancer is treated today, and could become the new standard of care for many patients confronted with a cancer diagnosis. 


To learn more about IO, please see this patient resource guide provided by The Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer, titled Understanding Cancer Immunotherapy.