What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a therapeutic treatment used to treat 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. Immunotherapy is a treatment option as soon as lung cancer has been diagnosed. In other cases, it’s used after another type of treatment proves unsuccessful.

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. There are different types of immunotherapy which 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 laboratory-made proteins that bind to specific parts of cancer cells. They can be used to 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, they can be used to attack cancer cells.

Other immunotherapies

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

Researchers don’t fully understand who benefits from immunotherapy and why. Research suggests that immunotherapy can help people with non-small cell lung cancer, the most common type of lung cancer.

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 with autoimmune disorders — such as Crohn’s disease, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis — and those with acute or chronic infections.

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

A pilot study explored the effectiveness of two doses of immunotherapy for individuals with early-stage non-small cell lung cancer who were about to undergo surgery. Although the sample size was small, researchers found that 45 percent of participants showed a significant reduction in the number of cancer cells when their tumors were removed.

Another study sampled 616 individuals 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. 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.

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, you should report new side effects right away. Your doctor can help you decide if you need to stop treatment.

Immunotherapy is still not as common as other forms of treatment for cancer. However, more and more doctors now provide it. Most of these doctors are oncologists, which means they specialize 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 doctor for a recommendation.

Immunotherapy can be costly and it’s not always covered by insurance. It depends on where you live and your insurance provider.

A lot of immunotherapy drugs are still undergoing clinical trials. That means they haven’t been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and can’t be prescribed by doctors.

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.

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.