How Does Immunotherapy Treat Lung Cancer?

How Does Immunotherapy Treat Lung Cancer?

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How Does Immunotherapy Treat Lung Cancer? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How does immunotherapy work? Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez, a lung cancer specialist, explains how immunotherapy harnesses the immune system to kill cancer cells and how this treatment approach is transforming lung cancer care.

Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez is Associate Director of Community Outreach – Thoracic Oncology at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Miami Health System. Learn more about Dr. Rodriguez, here.

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Katherine Banwell:

What is immunotherapy, and how does it work to treat lung cancer?  

Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez:

So, immunotherapy technically can be used to treat almost every cancer. So, it’s this concept that over time the cancer cells learn to bypass the immune surveillance, which is the way that your body identifies cells that are abnormal and gets rid of them.  

Your immune system can do that. And over time cancer grows and grows faster because your immune cells don’t even recognize that the cancer cells are there. So, immune therapy, specifically the checkpoint inhibitors, they target a receptor that is overexpressed in cancer cells, that make cancer cells invisible to the immune system. So, when you use, for example, some of these antibodies that bind the PD-L1, the programmed death ligand-1 receptor, that in itself gets rid of that veil that is covering the tumor cells. And now, your immune system can recognize the cancer. 

And that is one way of activating the immune system against the cancer, checkpoint inhibitors. There are newer drugs that are coming in the market, newer kind of engineered immune cells that will, in the future, be able to be developed for that specific cell. And in a way, immune therapy is more natural because you’re not getting a chemotherapy is that causes nausea or hair loss.  

You’re getting your immune system kind of ramped up, activated, against your cancer cells. It can have side effects of when you activate all these immune cells, you can cause inflammation in the body that has to be monitored, and some patients can be serious. And also, people have developed autoimmune kind of antibody reactions. So, there is a lot of monitoring that needs to be done. It’s given intravenously. We have doses now that last up to six weeks in some of the major immunotherapies that we use, like pembrolizumab, so you don’t have to come all the time. 

And I think the one thing that I’ve seen that is very promising about immunotherapy is that if you activate your immune system, almost like when you were young you got a vaccine, and you don’t have to get it every year, you have a memory response against that virus. Immunotherapy can achieve that for about 20 to 30 percent of patients today, where they get this memory against the cancer cells, and they could potentially come off treatment.