Immunotherapy is one of the most promising new treatments for lung cancer. These therapies help the body’s immune system to locate and destroy cancerous cells. The immune system is programmed to identify and destroy any foreign cells that it doesn’t recognize, such as germs. Under normal conditions, cancer cells should be recognized and targeted because they are not normally found in the body. However, cancer develops gradually as healthy cells undergo a series of subtle DNA mutations and acquire the ability to evade the immune system. This makes it more difficult for the immune system to recognize cancerous cells as invaders.
How does immunotherapy treat lung cancer?
Different immunotherapy drugs work in different ways. Some trigger the body’s natural immune system response, while others kick-start cell destruction in a manner that differs from the body’s usual processes. Other drugs can override the immune system’s “off switch” that otherwise prevents it from attacking cancerous cells. In these ways, immunotherapies can specifically target cancerous cells that have abnormal growth patterns while leaving healthy cells unaffected.
There are several different immunotherapy medications that can be used for lung cancer treatment. These include:
Some of these medications can also be used to treat other types of cancer; ipilimumab, for example, is FDA-approved for the treatment of melanoma. To determine the medication that’s best for each patient’s unique needs, a team of medical oncologists, pathologists and other specialists should jointly discuss the patient’s diagnostic information and test results.
Another type of more aggressive immunotherapy is transgenic T-cell receptor (TCR) infusions, or chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) infusions. These cellular immunotherapy treatments are only available for lung cancers through clinical trials. In these trials, the patient’s tumor is screened to see if it contains a specific protein. Then, the patient has a blood collection procedure to collect their own T-cells. Next, the T-cells are genetically changed to express a special TCR or CAR which is unique for the tumor. Finally, the patients receive the engineered T-cell product, in a monitored setting. Examples of these trials at Moffitt include those being conducted with Adaptimmune and Kite pharmaceutical companies.
At Moffit Cancer Center, we take a team approach to cancer treatment. A collaborative, multispecialty group of oncologists reviews each patient’s unique situation to recommend the most promising forms of treatment. Complex cases are presented during our weekly tumor board meetings. This allows us to create comprehensive, individualized treatment plans that incorporate the best surgical techniques, radiation therapy delivery methods, chemotherapy and immunotherapy medications and other novel treatments for lung cancer.
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Bob Creelan.