Immunotherapy for Cancer: Nonspecific

Immunotherapy is a way of treating a disease or infection using the body’s immune system. It can be used in some cases to help treat cancer. One kind of immunotherapy treatment for cancer is called nonspecific immunotherapy (NSI). This sheet tells you more about NSI treatments and how they are used.

How Immunotherapy Works

The immune system is the body’s defense against disease and infection. One part of the system makes special proteins called antibodies. These proteins attack foreign substances that enter the body. Each antibody is specific to a substance. It recognizes and attacks only that substance. Some immunotherapy treatments help treat cancer by targeting specific parts of cancer cells. NSI treatments work differently. They help to increase the immune system’s overall ability to fight cancer cells more effectively. NSI treatments mainly involve the use of manufactured immune system proteins called cytokines. These proteins help immune system cells communicate. They also help control the immune system’s response to cancer cells.

Types of NSI Treatments

NSI treatments include:

  • Interferons. These stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells. They can stop cancer cells from growing and spreading.

  • Interleukins. These encourage the growth of certain immune system cells to help fight cancer.

  • Colony-stimulating factors. These encourage the growth of blood cells in the bone marrow. This helps increase the number of white blood cells in the body. White blood cells help the body fight against cancer cells.

Currently, only a few types of cancer seem to respond to NSI treatment. Research continues to look for ways that NSI can be used for other types of cancer.

How NSI Treatments Are Given

NSI treatments can be given different ways. Some are injected just under the skin, or into a muscle. Others are given through a small tube called an IV, that is put into a vein. The vein is usually one in the arm, but a larger vein in the body may be used. The treatments may be done at a hospital, clinic, or healthcare provider's office. The number of treatments and their length depends on many factors. This includes the type of NSI and the type of cancer being treated.

Possible Side Effects of NSI Treatments

NSI treatments may cause side effects. These may include:

  • Fatigue (tiredness)

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Low blood pressure

  • Fast heart rate

  • Severe swelling

  • Rash

  • Weakness

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Dizziness

  • Allergic reaction, such as rash and hives

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Changes to blood counts

  • Confusion

  • Loss of appetite

Other side effects can also occur. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about what side effects to expect and how to manage them. If needed, your healthcare provider may give you medicines to treat some side effects. Your healthcare team can also teach you ways to help cope with side effects.


To learn more about NSI treatments, go to: American Cancer Society,