The immune system is a complex network that works to protect the human body from foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells. However, cancer cells have developed multiple mechanisms to escape detection by the body’s immune system, thereby allowing the cancer to proliferate “unchecked.” Immunotherapy is a form of systemic treatment that has been developed to release the “breaks” that the cancer has placed on the immune system. Immunotherapy helps to make the cancer “visible” once again, allowing the immune system to effectively target and destroy the foreign cells.
The main type of immunotherapy used in lung cancer is called “immune checkpoint inhibition.” Immune checkpoint inhibitors can be used alone, in combination with another immune checkpoint inhibitor, or in combination with cytotoxic chemotherapy. Immunotherapy is given intravenously, once every 2 to 6 weeks.
The following immune checkpoint inhibitors are approved for the treatment of lung cancer:
- Nivolumab (Opdivo®)
- Pembrolizumab (Keytruda®)
- Atezolizumab (Tecentriq®)
- Durvalumab (Imfinzi®)
- Ipilimumab (Yervoy®)
Side effects associated with immunotherapy are due to inflammation. Side effects may occur at any time during (and sometimes after) treatment, and can vary in severity. Common side effects associated with immune checkpoint inhibitors are:
- Rash, itching
- Inflammation of lungs (pneumonitis)
- Inflammation of liver
- Thyroid changes (underactive or overactive thyroid)
- Joint and/or muscle aches