When you think about cancer treatment, you probably think of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
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But if you have advanced lung cancer, you should know that immunotherapy is another option that can help your body put up a stronger fight. And, in some cases, it gets significant results when other treatments have failed.
How does immunotherapy work?
“Our immune system is an intricate network of cells with the sole purpose of protecting us from invading microorganisms and from normal cells that undergo abnormal changes, such as cancer cells,” says oncologist Vamsidhar Velcheti, MD.
Your immune system likely stops many threats in their tracks. But as cancers take hold and grow, they sometimes begin to outpace or find ways to hide from your immune system. This means that your body’s natural defenses can no longer fight off the threat.
Immunotherapy uses drugs to increase the strength of your immune system and help it to do its job better.
Although oncologists have used immunotherapy to treat other types of cancer for a while, it has recently shown promising results in treating lung cancers, Dr. Velcheti says.
Lung cancers are often not diagnosed until they have reached a more advanced stage. As a result, curative treatment options often are not possible.
Chemotherapy, and even gene targeted treatments, work for lung cancer, however cancer cells become resistant to such treatments very rapidly.
Unleashing the force of your body’s immune system with immunotherapy can potentially control the cancer for a longer duration of time and, in some patients, for years.
4 approaches to harness the power of your immune system against cancer
There are four key types of immunotherapy that help fight lung cancer: checkpoint inhibitors, immune stimulatory molecules, therapeutic vaccines and adoptive cell therapy. Here’s a closer look at each one.
1. Checkpoint inhibitors. “One way that cancer cells escape our immune system is by producing proteins that trigger the immune checkpoint pathways that turn off the immune cells,” says Dr. Velcheti. “These proteins shield the tumor from the onslaught of the immune system.” Checkpoint inhibitors work by helping the immune system react more fully to the cancer cells.
2. Immune stimulatory molecules. These help bring the full force of your immune system to bear in targeting and fighting tumors. There are several immune stimulatory molecules like cytokines, positive checkpoint drugs and epigenetic drugs that are in clinical development that show potential in bolstering the body’s immune response against cancers.
3. Therapeutic vaccines. The use of vaccines in preventing infectious disease is well known — and has been an enormous success. The idea of a therapeutic cancer vaccine is to stimulate the body’s immune system with components of the cancer’s proteins to boost the performance of the body’s immune system against the cancer. There are novel ways scientists can engineer the vaccines to specifically activate certain kinds of immune cells to help stimulate the right kind of anti-tumor immune cells. Several cancer vaccines are in clinical trials in lung cancer and could potentially work better in combination with other types of immunotherapy.
4. Adoptive cell therapy. Using novel genetic engineering approaches, immune cells can be modified in the lab and transformed into “highly lethal” immune cells, and then reintroduced to the body. This approach has been quite effective in certain types of cancer and is currently being investigated in patients with lung cancer.
Immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone
The good thing about immunotherapy is that people usually experience fewer side effects than from other treatments. The biggest drawback at this time, however, is that not everyone responds to it in the same way — so it only works for some people.
“Checkpoint inhibitors only work when the immune system can recognize the tumor, and an effective immune response against the tumor exists,” Dr. Velcheti says. “Nearly two-thirds of those with cancer are unable to mount an adequate immune response. Hence, these are largely ineffective in these patients.”
However, for patients who do respond, the effects are typically longer-lasting than for other forms of treatment, such as chemotherapy, he says.
Clinical trials can offer cutting-edge care
Research to help identify those who are most likely to do well is ongoing. But in the meantime, this promising area of cancer research still holds plenty of hope for hard-to-treat cancers, he says.
If you’re fighting lung cancer, ask your oncologist whether immunotherapy can help your body fight harder and help you live longer.
You should also explore the options for clinical trials. “Patients should ask their oncologists about clinical trials they could participate in,” he says. If you sign up for a clinical trial, it could give you access to cutting-edge immunotherapy treatments — and you’ll help advance cancer research at the same time.