Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer 

Immunotherapy is one of the most recent categories of cancer treatment. It uses your body’s own defenses to help slow or stop the growth of cancer cells. Lung cancer is one of several types of cancer that has FDA approval for immunotherapy treatments. The type of treatment recommended depends on the type of lung cancer.

There are two main types of lung cancer: 

  • Small cell lung cancer - Doctors often refer to small cell lung cancer as “oat-cell” cancer because, when viewed under a microscope, the cancer cells look like oats. Small cell lung cancer frequently starts in the bronchi, which are the airways that lead from the windpipe into the lungs. It typically grows quite quickly and it spreads easily to other parts of the body.
  • Non-small cell lung cancer - This is the more common type of lung cancer accounting for about 90% of diagnoses. The primary risk factor for this type of lung cancer is smoking and the cancer cells typically start forming in the lung tissue.

Immunotherapy Lung Cancer Treatment

Immunotherapy helps your immune system recognize lung cancer cells then mount an attack against them. It’s often used as part of a complete lung cancer treatment plan that may also include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery.  Oncologists are optimistic about the outcomes, improving both the length and quality of life for lung cancer patients.

Types of Immunotherapy for the Treatment of Lung Cancer

A number of approaches to immunotherapy are now available, and many more are currently in the clinical research phase. 

Immune checkpoint inhibitors

One of the most important functions of the immune system is to launch an immune response, in which the immune system attacks foreign cells and leaves healthy cells alone. To tell the difference between foreign cells and normal body cells, the body uses “immune checkpoints.” Immune checkpoints are molecules on specific immune system cells that need to be “activated” or “inactivated” to start an immune response.

Cancer cells can disguise themselves as healthy cells, making the immune system ignore the cancer cells and allowing them to grow. By blocking the action of the immune checkpoints on cancer cells, the body can then recognize them as “foreign” and launch the appropriate immune response. Drugs, known as immune checkpoint inhibitors, prevent lung cancer cells from pretending to be healthy cells.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are now the most commonly used type of immunotherapy to treat lung cancer. The specific immune checkpoint inhibitor used depends largely on the type of lung cancer.

Adoptive T-cell Therapy (ACT)

The immune system consists of several types of white blood cells, which flow through the bloodstream to fight viruses, bacteria, foreign invaders, and unhealthy cells that threaten your health. One type of white blood cell, known as T-cells, hunts down and kills foreign invaders and unhealthy cells. T-cells also activate other cells in the immune system, regulate the immune response, and produce other substances that help protect the body.

Adoptive T-cell therapy uses your own T-cells to fight cancer. The treatment reactivates, enhances, and expands the number of cancer-fighting T-cells in your body. It’s used more often for non-small cell lung cancer, but further research is being done for other types of cancer.

The adoptive T-cell therapy procedure involves removing some of the T-cells from your blood or lung tumor tissue, growing the T-cells in large numbers in a laboratory, and then putting the T-cells back into your body. They use T-cells from tumor tissue because the cells have already invaded your cancer cells, so the T-cells already know how to identify and kill lung cancer cells. In some cases, cancer specialists working in the lab can change the T-cells to make the cells better at targeting and killing lung cancer cells.

How to Access Immunotherapy Lung Cancer Treatment

Immunotherapy is often included as a part of a complete lung cancer treatment plan. Each patient’s type of cancer, location of the cancer, and overall health will play a role in deciding which treatments to give and in which order. 

The cancer care specialists at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute and Research Center are dedicated to helping patients by using the most advanced cancer treatments available. We also participate in clinical research to help bring therapies, such as new types of immunotherapy, to patients. Your oncologist will talk to you if they feel that a clinical trial may be a good option for you.

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