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Immunotherapy Causing Neurological Issues

Immune T-cell attacking a cancer cell

Immunotherapy is a promising treatment option for certain cancer patients. This type of biological treatment capitalizes on the power of the body’s own immune system, which provides protection against bacteria, viruses and other invaders, including cancer. Tumor cells often have proteins that reveal their cancerous nature and would normally trigger an immune system assault; however, researchers believe that some cancer cells also have immune checkpoint molecules that "trick" the immune system into bypassing them.

Designed to get around this, a common form of immunotherapy utilizes checkpoint inhibitors, a type of drug that helps the immune system recognize and destroy cancerous cells that are “masquerading” as healthy cells. In doing so, however, the immune system may inadvertently attack some healthy cells as well. This can lead to a number of side effects, including neurological issues.

Common side effects of immunotherapy

The side effects of checkpoint inhibitor therapy can affect organs and tissues throughout the body, including the skin, colon, lungs, liver, pituitary gland and thyroid gland. Some common symptoms include:

  • General fatigue
  • Skin rashes and itching
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea and other forms of gastrointestinal distress
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Excessive hunger or thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath

When recognized early and addressed appropriately, these side effects are often manageable and usually resolve shortly after immunotherapy is completed.

Uncommon side effects of immunotherapy

A relatively low percentage of patients who are treated with certain checkpoint inhibitors (CTLA-4 inhibitors and PD-1 inhibitors) experience neurological side effects, such as:

  • Muscle pain and weakness
  • Numbness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Fever
  • Easy bruising
  • Vision loss

Oral or intravenous corticosteroids may be helpful for addressing these symptoms, if necessary.

Moffitt can help

If you are experiencing neurological side effects of immunotherapy, you are encouraged to talk with a specialist in the Neuro-Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. Request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing a new patient registration form online.