There are many kinds of biological therapy. Here are the names of some common ones with ways to say them and brief statements about how they are used in cancer care.
  • BCG or Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (ba-SIL-us KAL-met gay-RAIN) treats bladder tumors or bladder cancer.
  • IL-2 or Interleukin-2 (in-ter-LOO-kin 2) treats certain types of cancer.
  • Interferon alpha (in-ter-FEER-on AL-fa) treats certain types of cancer.
  • Rituxan or Rituximab (ri-TUX-i-mab) treats non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
  • Herceptin (her-SEP-tin) or Trastuzumab treats breast cancer.
Cancer vaccines
Cancer vaccines are a form of biological therapy.  While other vaccines (like ones for measles or mumps) are given before you get sick, cancer vaccines are given after you have cancer.  Cancer vaccines may help your body fight the cancer and keep it from coming back.
Monoclonal antibody drugs
Monoclonal antibody drugs are a relatively new innovation in cancer treatment.  A monoclonal antibody is a laboratory-produced molecule that's carefully engineered to attach to specific defects in your cancer cells.  Monoclonal antibodies mimic the antibodies your body naturally produces as part of your immune system's response to germs, vaccines and other invaders.  When a monoclonal antibody attaches to a cancer cell, it can:
  • Make the cancer cell more visible to the immune system.  A monoclonal antibody marks the cancer cell so that the immune system can recognize it as a danger.
  • Block growth signals.  Chemicals called growth factors signal the cancer and healthy cells to grow. Certain cancer cells make extra copies of the growth factor receptor so they grow faster than normal cells.  Monoclonal antibodies can block these receptors and prevent the growth signal from getting through. 

  • Deliver radiation to cancer cells.  By combining a radioactive particle with a monoclonal antibody, doctors can deliver radiation directly to the cancer cells. This way, most of the surrounding healthy cells aren't damaged.  Radiation-linked monoclonal antibodies deliver a low level of radiation over a longer period of time, which researchers believe is as effective as the more conventional high-dose external beam radiation. 
Ibritumomab (Zevalin), approved for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, combines a monoclonal antibody with radioactive particles.  The ibritumomab monoclonal antibody attaches to receptors on cancerous blood cells and delivers the radiation.
  • Slip powerful drugs into cancer cells.  Powerful anti-cancer drugs or toxins can be attached to monoclonal antibodies. The drugs remain inactive until they're inside the target cells, lowering the chance of harming other cells. 
Gemtuzumab (Mylotarg), approved for treating a certain type of acute myelogenous leukemia, is a monoclonal antibody attached to a potent anti-cancer drug made from a bacterium.  The monoclonal antibody in gemtuzumab attaches to specific receptors on leukemic cells.  Then the anti-cancer drug enters the cancer cell and is activated, causing the cancer cell to die.
A number of monoclonal antibody drugs are available to treat various types of cancer.  Clinical trials are studying monoclonal antibody drugs in treating nearly every type of cancer.
To learn more about your biological therapy visit the National Institute of Health Web site at
Call the Cancer Information Service (CIS) at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237). Sponsored by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the CIS has information about cancer and its treatments.