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Immunotherapy for Breast Cancer

The immune system exists to protect the body from infections and other health threats. Often, cancer cells interfere with how the immune system functions or the body simply does not recognize cancer as a threat. Immunotherapy restores the body's ability to fight off cancer.

Developments in immunotherapy are growing quickly. The researchers at the Abramson Cancer Center continue to find new ways to stimulate the body's natural ability to combat breast cancer. We use immunotherapy to personalize cancer treatment whenever appropriate.

What Is Immunotherapy for Breast Cancer?

Immunotherapy uses medication to activate a patient's own immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells. The medication is systemic, like chemotherapy, and travels through the bloodstream to reach all areas of the body.

New research suggests that immunotherapy may improve outcomes in certain patients with breast cancer. The FDA approved the first immunotherapy drug for breast cancer in 2019. Now, researchers are rapidly developing new drugs that target specific proteins found on some breast cancer cells.

Immunotherapy for Breast Cancer: Why Choose the Abramson Cancer Center?

Our breast cancer team bases your care on advanced research done at Penn Medicine. Whenever possible, our oncologists offer you the latest treatments in addition to standard approaches. At the Abramson Cancer Center, you'll find:

  • Recognized leaders in immunotherapy: We are part of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, a collaboration of the nation's top six academic cancer centers. This partnership provides resources and data that fuel advanced immunotherapy research.
  • Expert oncologists: Our medical oncologists are involved in the research conducted at Penn Medicine. They understand the benefits and limitations of immunotherapy for breast cancer. Whenever possible, our oncologists include the latest immunotherapy treatments in your personalized breast cancer plan.
  • Access to groundbreaking research: We conduct leading-edge research to personalize care and expand the role of immunotherapy in breast cancer. Our 2-PREVENT Breast Cancer Translational Center of Excellence investigates the impact of immunotherapy on recurrent breast cancer.

Treating Breast Cancer With Immunotherapy Drugs

We use immunotherapy drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors to treat breast cancer. The immune system relies on proteins located on cells (checkpoints) to know whether or not to attack a cell.

Breast cancer cells sometimes alter these checkpoints to avoid an attack from the immune system. Immune checkpoint inhibitors target checkpoint proteins in a way that allows immune cells to recognize and destroy cancer cells.

In 2019, the FDA approved the first checkpoint inhibitor for the treatment of breast cancer. The drug, called atezolizumab (Tecentriq®), works in combination with chemotherapy. We use it to treat triple negative, metastatic breast cancer in patients whose tumors express the PD-L1 protein. We determine PD-L1 levels using breast tissue samples obtained during biopsy.

Immunotherapy Research at Penn

The use of immunotherapy for breast cancer treatment is still under investigation. Our breast cancer research team collaborates with other distinguished centers to advance immunotherapy treatments. As we test new therapies, you may have access to promising treatments you won’t find everywhere else. Learn more about breast cancer clinical trials at Penn.