Finding the cure for cancer has long been a priority in healthcare studies. Lung cancer is one of the most fatal forms of cancer, accounting for more annual deaths than the combined number of colon, prostate and breast cancer deaths. This makes it one of the most important to find successful treatment options. One promising area of lung cancer research is immunotherapy.
What Is Immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy is a form of disease treatment that focuses on stimulating the body’s immune response to prevent and/or treat certain diseases. It is becoming more and more common as a potential treatment for a variety of cancers, including lung cancer. There are four main types: checkpoint inhibitors, therapeutic vaccines, adoptive cell therapy and monoclonal antibodies.
The Promise of Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer
Traditionally, lung cancer has been treated through surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy, similar to other forms of cancer. However, with lung cancer, these treatments tend to only provide improved quality of and length of life rather than curing the disease. Prior research has not focused on immunotherapy for lung cancer because it was believed that the immune system did not recognize this type of cancer. However, recent research has found the opposite to be true: immunotherapy is a promising form of therapy.
Recent research into immunotherapy options demonstrates that this type of treatment has promise as a cancer treatment. Many patients have found benefits, even those who have not seen any positive benefits from conventional therapy.
One of the main types of immunotherapy treatments in cancer is known as checkpoint inhibition. When cells become cancerous, they often bypass the normal security checkpoints in the body that remedy dysfunction. Checkpoint inhibitors alter the tumor so that this evasion of the immune system is overturned. Thus, the immune cells are able to treat the cancer cells as dangerous to the body and remove them.
Several trials of the checkpoint inhibition nivolumab have demonstrated benefits through targeting the PD-1, which is on immune cells. Patients undergoing this treatment for non-squamous NSCLC had a 40 percent reduction in their risk of mortality. The FDA has approved this and another drug, pembrolizumab, for NSCLC. There are also similar treatments that target CTLA-4 and others that combine certain checkpoints. Several other studies are currently undergoing clinical trials to likewise advance this type of therapy to clinical practice.
Adoptive Cell Therapy
Another immunotherapy category is known as adoptive cell therapy. This is where doctors remove the patient’s T cells with the purpose of modifying them. Then, the T cells are reintroduced to the patient with the hope that this will improve the ability of the immune system to fight cancer cells.
The third main category of immunotherapy drugs for lung cancer treatment is monoclonal antibodies. These are lab-made molecules that targeted the tumor antigens with the intention of then triggering an immune response. The FDA has already approved several for the treatment of lung cancer, including Ramucirumab and bevacizumab.
Vaccines have long been used to trigger the immune system into working better against a pathogen. Now, there are cancer treatments utilizing a similar theory. Rather than targeting a virus or other pathogen, these vaccines use specific antigens on the tumor so that the immune cells will target the cancer cells. For lung cancer, these antigens include MAGE-3, NY-ESO-1, p53, surviving and MUC1. Several phase 1 clinical trials have found promising results, especially for the NY-ESO-1 antigen.
The Future of Immunotherapy: Upcoming Clinical Trials
With several promising clinical trials already completed, there are several more clinical trials in different stages of completion to further promote immunotherapy in lung cancer. In New York City and the surrounding areas, there are more than 20 clinical trials taking place studying various immunotherapy drugs either alone or in combination with conventional cancer drugs. A search in the National Cancer Institute for immunotherapy in lung cancer found over 40 active clinical trials. As these continue to show promise, there are sure to be even more future studies into this promising treatment for lung cancer.
The future of cancer therapy might take a different approach than many of the conventional treatments currently in use. It is important for physicians to be abreast of the latest developments to offer patients the best in care. Providing chronically ill patients a way to obtain their medications in-office without the hassles of having to drive to the pharmacy is one of the ways to do so.