Immunotherapy may help improve the survival rate for people with certain forms of lung cancer. Many of these drugs are undergoing clinical trials.

Immunotherapy is a treatment used for some forms of lung cancer, particularly non-small cell lung cancers. It’s sometimes called biologic therapy or biotherapy.

Immunotherapy uses drugs that stimulate your immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells.

It’s often a treatment option as soon as lung cancer has been diagnosed. In other cases, it’s used after another type of treatment isn’t working.

Your immune system works to protect you from infection and illness. Your immune cells are trained to target and attack foreign substances, such as germs and allergens, that enter your body.

Your immune system can also target and attack cancer cells. However, cancer cells pose certain challenges. They may appear similar to healthy cells, making them difficult to detect. In addition, they tend to grow and spread quickly.

Immunotherapy can help boost your immune system’s ability to fight cancer cells.

In recent years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several new immunotherapy drugs that are now available. Each has their own considerations, so it’s best to discuss these options with your healthcare team in deciding what might be best for you.

There are different types of immunotherapy that work in different ways.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors

Your immune system uses a system of protein-based “checkpoints” to make sure it’s not attacking healthy cells. Certain proteins must be activated or deactivated to launch an immune system attack.

Cancer cells sometimes take advantage of these checkpoints to avoid being destroyed. Immunotherapy drugs that inhibit checkpoints make this much more difficult.

Monoclonal antibodies

Monoclonal antibodies are proteins made in a lab. They bind to specific parts of cancer cells. Monoclonal antibodies can carry medication, toxins, or radioactive substances straight to cancer cells.

Lung cancer vaccines

Cancer vaccines work in much the same way as vaccines for other diseases. They introduce antigens, which are foreign substances used to trigger an immune system response against cells. In cancer vaccines, antigens can be used to attack cancer cells.

Other immunotherapies

Other immunotherapy drugs strengthen your immune system, making it more effective at fighting cancer cells.

Immunotherapy drugs can cause side effects. Some of these include:

  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • itchiness
  • joint pain
  • lack of appetite
  • nausea
  • skin rashes

In some cases, immunotherapy triggers an immune system attack on your organs. This can lead to severe and sometimes life threatening side effects.

If you’re undergoing immunotherapy, report new side effects to your healthcare team right away. They can help you decide whether you need to stop treatment.

Immunotherapy is still a relatively new treatment for lung cancer, with dozens of studies currently underway. So far, the results are quite promising.

In a 2020 study, researchers explored the effectiveness of immunotherapy and found a 7.1-month improvement overall for people treated with atezolizumab, instead of chemotherapy.

A 2019 study found that the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab led to durable antitumor activity and higher than estimated 5-year overall survival rates.

This 2018 study also sampled 616 people with advanced, untreated non-small cell lung cancer. Participants were randomly chosen to receive either chemotherapy with immunotherapy or chemotherapy with a placebo.

Among those who received immunotherapy, the estimated survival rate was 69.2 percent at 12 months. In contrast, the placebo group had an estimated 12-month survival rate of 49.4 percent.

Immunotherapy is already changing the treatment landscape for people with lung cancer. However, it’s not perfect.

For example, in the latter study, people who received chemotherapy with immunotherapy were more likely to experience severe side effects and end their treatment early compared with the placebo group.

Even with the number of newly-approved immunotherapy drugs in recent years, several remain in development and remain in clinical trials. That means they haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and doctors can’t prescribe these treatments.

Researchers use clinical trials to gauge how effective one or more medications are. Participants are typically volunteers.

If you’d like to participate in a clinical trial, your doctor can help you learn more, including the risks and benefits of participating.

You can also visit the Cancer Research Institute or National Cancer Institute to find out more about specific clinical trials and much more information on this topic you might be interested in discussing with your healthcare team.

Immunotherapy works to boost people’s immun systems against the cancer cells in the body. The American Cancer Society points out that someone may need immunotherapy depending on many factors, including their age, any underlying conditions, and their overall health.

A 2017 meta-analysis of studies found that people receiving immunotherapies versus chemo or other placebos for non-small cell lunger cancer saw “greatly improved” outcomes and their daily quality of life, and they also experienced fewer side effects compared to the other treatments.

Targeted therapy is considered a more effective treatment option for people with lung tumors that have certain gene mutations.

Immunotherapy may not be safe for people who have acute or chronic infections or autoimmune disorders, such as:

Immunotherapy is still not as common as other forms of cancer treatment. However, more and more doctors now provide it. Most of these doctors are oncologists. This type of doctor specializes in cancer treatment.

To find a doctor who can provide immunotherapy, contact a healthcare institution that specializes in cancer treatment. You can also ask your primary care doctor for a recommendation.

Immunotherapy can be costly, and insurance doesn’t always cover it. It depends on where you live and your insurance provider.

Only time will tell how effective immunotherapy is in treating lung cancer. For now, it appears immunotherapy may improve the outlook for people with non-small cell lung cancer. Research is advancing quickly, but long-term outcomes will take years.