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. 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.

A 2018 pilot study explored the effectiveness of two doses of immunotherapy for people with early stage non-small cell lung cancer who were about to undergo surgery.

Although the sample size was small at 21 participants, researchers found that 45 percent of them showed a significant reduction in the number of cancer cells when their tumors were removed.

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

Another 2018 study 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.

A lot of immunotherapy drugs are still undergoing clinical trials. That means they haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 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.

Researchers don’t fully understand who benefits from immunotherapy and why. Some 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 who have acute or chronic infections or autoimmune disorders, such as:

  • Crohn’s disease
  • lupus
  • rheumatoid arthritis

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.