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Immunotherapy: The New Weapon for Battle against Lung Cancer

Immunotherapy is the latest approach to treating lung cancer. It works by harnessing the immune system to counterattack lung cancer cells.

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is not only the second common cancer in the United States, but also the leading cause or mortality. Immunotherapy provides hope for lasting treatment of lung cancers that may have spread to other body parts or for those patients whose cancer seems resistant to other treatments.

Oncologists are still investigating other drugs along with combined therapies that can help treat lung cancer including the less common small cell lung cancer.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several immunotherapy drugs (checkpoint inhibitors), which target those tumors that show protein PD-L1 markers. This protein hinders the T cells of the immune system from identifying and attacking cancer cells and inflamed tissues.

Experts are combining checkpoint inhibitors with other drugs to make them more effective. The most successful combination is that between chemotherapy and checkpoint inhibitors.

The procedure of administering immunotherapy:

  • Biopsy – a tissue sample is analyzed to find out if the lung tumor has cells that may respond to targeted therapies. Oncologists also examine the tumor sample to establish if it can express PD-L1 and find out whether it can respond to immunotherapy.
  • Treatment delivery – The doctor administers treatment for about two years. Ongoing research will tell if the timeframe can be shortened without compromising the efficacy.
  • CT imaging-Lastly, CT imaging helps to track the effectiveness of treatment by measuring the size of tumor over time and detecting any new lesions that might develop. 

Immunotherapy isn’t without side effects though. Since it activates the patient’s immune system, an autoimmune response affects approximately 10 – 15 percent of the patients where the immune system attacks the normal tissues such as the colon or lungs. Anti-inflammatory medications like steroids help to treat these side effects.

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