While certain types of immunotherapy have been approved for the treatment of prostate cancer, it’s not as commonly used compared with other treatment methods like chemotherapy.

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that works with your immune system to fight cancer cells. Classified as a biological therapy, this treatment measure uses living organisms, which sets it apart from other cancer treatments.

Here’s what you need to know about how immunotherapy may help treat prostate cancer, as well as its effectiveness and potential side effects.

Immunotherapy is most often used in prostate cancer that’s in an advanced stage or that doesn’t respond to chemotherapy. It may also be combined with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery.

A doctor may recommend immunotherapy for prostate cancer because it doesn’t cause as many side effects as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Unlike such traditional treatments, immunotherapy attacks cancer cells only — not healthy ones.

Additionally, immunotherapy may train your immune system to fight future cancer cells, which may lead to longer remission times. This is due to a phenomenon known as “immunomemory.”

Like all prostate cancer treatments, the effectiveness of immunotherapy depends on the individual, and it may not work for everyone. It’s also only used for advanced cases.

According to one 2020 review, prostate cancers generally don’t show significant responses to immunotherapies compared with other types of advanced cancers.

There are multiple types of immunotherapy drugs on the market, but only two types are currently approved for the treatment of prostate cancer:

  • Immunomodulators: These work by activating “checkpoint inhibitors” on your immune cells and targeting PD-1/PD-L1 pathways in the body to inhibit cancer cells from growing and replicating. Immunomodulators are primarily used for prostate cancers that are recurring or that have spread.
  • Vaccines: Unlike traditional vaccines that prevent infections, cancer vaccines use your own immune cells to attack cancerous ones. In the case of prostate cancer, such vaccines contain prostatic acid phosphatase (PAP) proteins. Cancer vaccines may be considered when advanced prostate cancer no longer responds to hormonal treatment.

Clinical trials are ongoing to determine the possibility of additional immunotherapies for prostate cancer. These include antibodies, adoptive cell therapies, additional cancer vaccines, and more.

Common side effects from immunotherapy involve skin reactions. Symptoms may include:

  • pain or soreness
  • redness
  • swelling
  • rash
  • itchiness

Other possible side effects may include:

  • flu-like symptoms, such as fever, nausea, and muscle aches
  • joint pain
  • sinus congestion
  • cough
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • fluid retention
  • reduced appetite
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • high blood pressure
  • heart palpitations
  • organ inflammation
  • infections

While rare, immunotherapy also carries a risk of causing severe or life threatening inflammation or allergic reactions. In such cases, a doctor may prescribe steroids to help suppress the overactivity of your immune system.

Immunotherapy is typically administered in an outpatient setting, meaning you don’t need to stay in a hospital for this treatment.

The exact procedure depends on the type of immunotherapy you’re receiving. You can expect the following:

  1. Both vaccines and immunomodulators are intravenous (IV) treatments.
  2. To make a prostate cancer vaccine, you’ll be hooked up to a machine for a few hours while it removes white blood cells from your body. These cells are then sent to a lab where they are combined with PAP proteins. Once this is complete, the new combination is administered via IV infusions.
  3. Immunomodulators consist of specific drugs that are administered via IV infusions. A healthcare professional will insert a needle into a vein during treatment.
  4. Immunomodulator treatments are repeated every 2 to 3 weeks. Cancer vaccines are repeated twice, so you receive a total of 3 treatments. Each vaccine is spaced 2 weeks apart.

Speak with your doctor about how long each immunotherapy session may take. You may consider bringing a phone, headphones, or reading materials to help pass the time.

While some treatment centers allow for family and friends to accompany you, others may ask that your loved ones stay in the waiting area during treatment.

Unlike chemotherapy, immunotherapy has few significant side effects. Most side effects resolve within 3 days of immunotherapy treatments. Pain and flu-like symptoms may be treated with over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol).

While immunotherapy is increasing in popularity, it also remains an expensive treatment option. Current estimates show that it may cost at least $100,000 per year. Private insurance may cover part of the costs, but it’s important to contact your provider in advance.

Immunotherapy may also be partially covered by Medicare and other government programs. As a 2023 retrospective cohort study found, Medicare payments for immunotherapy costs have significantly increased since 2016, underscoring the fact that this treatment is increasingly sought after.

Before starting immunotherapy for prostate cancer, consider the following key questions you may wish to discuss with your doctor:

Can prostate cancer be treated with immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is one possible treatment for prostate cancer. It’s generally considered when chemotherapy doesn’t work or if the cancer has spread.

Is there an immunotherapy for stage 4 prostate cancer?

Immunomodulator drugs and cancer vaccines are two types of immunotherapies that are approved for advanced stages of prostate cancer.

What is the success rate of immunotherapy for prostate cancer?

The success rate of immunotherapy is not as significant for prostate cancer compared with other cancers. Research is still ongoing to determine why this is the case. However, some people dohave success with this treatment.

Immunotherapy isn’t considered a first-line treatment for prostate cancer, but it may be considered for advanced cases where other treatments haven’t worked. Currently, these include immunomodulators and cancer vaccines.

Research on other novel immunotherapies for prostate cancer is ongoing. Speak with a doctor if you’re interested in learning about clinical trials and want to know whether immunotherapy is an option for your own case.