Cancer Immunotherapy: What it is and where it’s going

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Clinical trials could mean another option for patients trying to save their lives.

When a patient receives a cancer diagnosis, they immediately want to know what options they have to fight back. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery are the most traditional and well known types of cancer treatment. However, the past 10 years of cancer research have yielded emerging cancer treatments that are showing exciting results for doctors and their patients.

Immunotherapy is a relatively new treatment type that is a promising option for certain types of cancer. Doctors and researchers have been exploring different types of immunotherapy treatment for a variety of cancers, and new drugs are rapidly being approved by the FDA for cancers of the lung, breast, kidney and brain.


What is Immunotherapy?

The body’s immune system is a group of organs and cells that protect against disease and infection. Cancer immunotherapy treatments utilize a patient’s immune system to attack their cancer cells or generally boost their immune responses. The immune system attacks cells it doesn’t recognize, however it has difficulty recognizing and targeting cancerous cells. This is why even people with healthy immune systems can be faced with a cancer diagnosis. Immunotherapy is used to strengthen the immune system in these cases and help to better distinguish dangerous cancer cells.

Cancer immunotherapy can be employed as a standalone treatment, but is also commonly paired with other types of treatment to increase the viability of each. Immunotherapy treatment comes in many different forms including cancer vaccines, checkpoint inhibitors, adoptive cell transfusion, and targeted antibodies. The use of immunotherapy treatment has been approved in the United States and is being conducted in many forms at the clinical trial level. This research helps doctors and scientists as they continue to evolve their understanding of how immunotherapy can be best used to treat cancer.


Recent Breakthroughs in Cancer Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy can’t be used to treat every type of cancer, but it has proven to be groundbreaking for a number of cancer forms. Breakthroughs in 2019 have allowed the FDA to approve a number of new treatment drugs for different cancers.

  • Breast Cancer – In March 2019, the FDA approved the use of the first checkpoint inhibitor Atezolizumab (Tecentriq) for metastatic breast cancer. Atezolizumab targets the protein P1-L1 that is found in tumors. By inhibiting P1-L1, the immune system’s response to breast cancer cells is strengthened.
  • Mesothelioma Cancer – The interaction of PD-1 and PD-L1 proteins can prevent T cells from killing mesothelioma cancer cells. Keytruda (pembrolizumab), an anti-PD-1/PD-L1 drug, has been successful in inhibiting communications between these types of cells and therefore shrinking tumors in mesothelioma patients. In a Keytruda study, the drug was able to shrink tumors in 14 of 25 patients affected with mesothelioma of the pleura, or lungs.
  • Melanoma – Keytruda was also approved by the FDA in March 2019 to be used on advanced melanoma patients. A study showed that the use of Keytruda decreased the amount of recurrence or death in patients by 43 percent.

Similar to chemotherapy and radiation, immunotherapy treatment can also have side effects, so it’s important for patients to talk over options with their physicians before moving forward with this type of treatment. It’s also important to note that many immunotherapy treatments are only available in the clinical trial stage and may be considered “experimental.” Patients often have to qualify for a study and ensure that it is covered by their insurance.

Learning about the side effects


Using Immunotherapy to treat cancer is still a relatively new development in the cancer treatment world. Recent discoveries in the field show a promising future for immunotherapy drugs, but there is still a lot to learn about how they are affecting the body. Like other forms of cancer treatment, immunotherapy drugs can cause undesirable side effects. Patients may experience increased fatigue and inflammation throughout the body.

Patients may experience skin inflammation through rashes or changes in pigmentation. Inflammation can also commonly affect the lungs and abdomen causing chest pain, coughing or diarrhea. More rarely, inflammation could affect the pituitary gland which can cause headaches, vision problems, weight loss and nausea. These side effects generally show up in the first few months of treatment, but the timeline for side effects can vary from patient to patient.

Due to the relative newness of immunotherapy, there isn’t much data to track the long-term side effects of the treatment, but as side effects occur doctors can work with patients to alleviate them. Patients who are eligible for immunotherapy have usually already gone through chemotherapy and are more equipped to understand their symptoms and track changes in their body.

The Growing Field of Immunotherapy

The field of Immunotherapy research and medicine is quickly growing, and will only continue to expand with more success. While not all cancer patients respond to immunotherapy at this point, many doctors believe that we are only beginning to scratch the surface of cancer immunotherapy treatment.

Currently immunotherapy treatment is very expensive for the average patient, even those who are covered by health insurance. Increasing the number of immunotherapy trials and drugs in the market could also help with the affordability of these treatments. These treatments can cost upwards of $100,000 to $200,000 per year, which is not feasible for many people, especially alongside the cost of surgeries and other treatments. With growing popularity and success, there could be potential for changing laws around drug pricing or more competition between drug companies to lower prices and make them more accessible to those fighting for their lives.

That’s why it is important for top physicians and researchers to continue to invest their time into working on testing new treatments and clinical trials. Taking on an immunotherapy clinical trial could mean a world of difference for patients who are looking for an option that could save their lives.



Molly McGuane is a communication specialist and health advocate for the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center. 

1 Comment

  1. jeff Williams on

    Probably should read “ does “.

    The immune system attacks cells it doesn’t recognize, however it has difficulty recognizing and targeting cancerous cells.

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