Treating Lung Cancer with Immunotherapy: How These Groundbreaking Drugs Work

“Immunotherapies have really caused a paradigm shift in our treatment of lung cancer patients.”

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Getting a lung cancer diagnosis is a scary and overwhelming experience. You probably have many questions about your condition, in hopes to find answers to what may seem like an endless amount of unknowns. Can my lung cancer be treated? What are my treatment options? What will my life be like from now on?

Despite the prevalence of lung cancer, it’s still one of the most misunderstood conditions, much of which is due to the stigmas associated with lung cancer. Because of these stigmas, people struggling with lung cancer may have less resources available to them, which may affect their ability to understand the latest treatment options.

“Many patients don’t have a lot of information about lung cancer,” says Jorge Gomez, MD, a lung oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. “Some of them haven’t heard about the newer therapies that can prolong life, can improve quality of life, and have had a significant impact in the treatment of lung cancer.”

One of these newer therapies is called immunotherapy.

What Is Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that uses the body's immune system to help slow or stop cancer growth.

“Immunotherapies are newer therapies [that are less] toxic [than] chemotherapy and don’t attack the cancer directly like chemotherapy or targeted therapies,” says Dr. Gomez. “These drugs have [at times] been proven to be better than chemotherapy and are now approved in almost every scenario in lung cancer.”

Learn more here about the difference between chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

How Does Immunotherapy Work?

Various types of immunotherapy are being developed to help the immune system recognize a tumor as something different than the normal tissues in the body. One of these immunotherapy approaches is a class of medications called checkpoint inhibitors. Here’s how they work:

An important characteristic of the immune system is to keep itself from attacking normal cells in the body. To do this, it uses “checkpoints”—which are proteins on immune cells that must be turned on (or off) to trigger an immune response.

Cancer cells sometimes use these checkpoints to essentially hide from and avoid being attacked by the immune system. “Cancer has an incredible ability to evade immune detection,” says Kevin Sullivan, MD, a lung oncologist at Monte Cancer Center, Northwell Health. “The cancer can interact with those proteins and shut off the immune response.”

That’s where the immunotherapies come to play. “These immune checkpoint inhibitors are actually antibodies that get infused into the bloodstream, and the antibody has a very specific target,” says Dr. Sullivan. The antibodies target and block the interaction between the cancer cells and the immune cells that allows the cancer to “hide” from the immune response.

“So by blocking that immune checkpoint, the immune system is now able to recognize the cancer as something foreign and attack it,” says Dr. Sullivan. “It’s basically an unleashing of the immune system against our cancer cells.”

Find out more about how immunotherapy works here.

Treating Lung Cancer with Immunotherapy

These immunotherapy drugs are given as an intravenous (IV) infusion every two or three weeks, and can be used in people with certain types of non-small cell lung cancer whose cancer starts growing again after chemotherapy or other drug treatments. Pembrolizumab can also be used as the first treatment in some people, either along with or instead of chemo.

Because these drugs work by basically removing the brakes on the body’s immune system, this may affect normal (healthy) tissue as well, which can cause side effects, such as:

  • Skin reactions
  • Colitis (inflammation of the colon)
  • Pneumonitis (inflammation of the lungs)
  • Endocrine disorders such as thyroid disease

More serious side effects can occur, but they happen less often.

“For patients who have received a lung cancer diagnosis, they have every reason to be hopeful. There are many different treatment options available, and every day we’re learning something new, and patients outcomes are improving with this disease,” says Dr. Sullivan.

Along with getting the right treatment and getting the proper nutrients during lung cancer treatment, it’s important to take care of yourself in other ways too: Here are 10 self-care tips for fighting lung cancer.