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Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy uses medicine to activate your own immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells. So far, immunotherapy only has been approved to treat advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). However research is advancing every day. You may be eligible for a clinical trial that tests a new type of immunotherapy drug. Ask your doctor if a clinical trial is right for you.

What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer Immunotherapy

Video: Dr. Mary Jo Fidler and lung cancer survivors, Karen and Donna, talk about the hope of lung cancer immunotherapy. [Watch in Spanish.] Supported by an educational grant from Merck.

Types of Lung Cancer Immunotherapy

There are three main types of immunotherapies being studied in people with NSCLC:

1. Immune checkpoint inhibitors

The most progress in immunotherapy for lung cancer has been made in immune checkpoint inhibitors. Immune checkpoints are molecules on the immune cells that can start or stop an immune response. The immune system uses these molecules to help determine what is normal and what should be attacked. Cancer cells sometimes trick these checkpoints to stop the body from attacking them. Newer drugs can target these checkpoints and help them respond against cancer cells.

Currently there are three FDA-approved lung cancer immunotherapy drugs: nivolumab (Opdivo®), pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) and atezolizumab (Tecentriq®), which are approved to treat people with advanced stage non-small cell lung cancer as a second-line treatment. Pembrolizumab (Keytruda®)is also approved as a first-line treatment for certain patients.

These types of drug block or "inhibit" the contact between the PD-L1 protein and the PD-1 receptor on the T cell (see our infographic to learn more about how this works).  This helps boost the immune response against cancer cells. They are normally given as an intravenous (IV) infusion. These drugs can have similar side effects to chemotherapy, including fatigue, nausea, itching, skin rash, and more, but they are generally less toxic than chemotherapy. However, because the drugs works on the immune system, it is possible to have serious immune-related side effects that can affect how your organs function. It is important to work with your care team to help monitor all side effects.

2. Cancer vaccines

When most people think of vaccines they think of treatments that prevent disease. However, there is another type of vaccine called a therapeutic vaccine. This type of vaccine treats an existing cancer by making the immune system better at killing cancer cells. Right now, these vaccines are being studied in clinical trials. There is currently no FDA-approved vaccine for lung cancer treatment.

3. Adoptive T cell therapy

In this therapy, T cells (a type of white blood cell in the immune system) are removed from your body and then altered in a laboratory so they better attack cancer cells. Finally, the enhanced T cells are put back into your body to help it fight cancer. Right now, this type of therapy is being studied in clinical trials and no such treatment is FDA approved for treating lung cancer.

    Resources
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    What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer Immunotherapy

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    Webpage Resource

    Immunotherapy: New Hope for Lung Cancer Treatment

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    Approved by Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. Last reviewed October 27, 2016.

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