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Biological therapy for neuroendocrine cancer

Biological therapy is commonly used to treat neuroendocrine cancer. It is also called biotherapy or biological response modifiers (BRMs).

Biological therapy uses natural or manufactured substances to kill, control or change the behaviour of cancer cells. Different types of biological therapies work in different ways.

Biological therapy for neuroendocrine cancer may be used to:

  • block release of hormones by functional neuroendocrine tumours or carcinomas
  • create an immune response against neuroendocrine cancers

Somatostatin congener therapy

Somatostatin is a hormone produced by neuroendocrine cells in the brain and digestive system. It suppresses the release of growth hormone, thyroid-stimulating hormone and gastrointestinal hormones. Somatostatin has a very short half-life of about 2–3 minutes.

Octreotide (Sandostatin) and lanreotide (Somatuline) are synthetic substitutes with the same action (congeners) as somatostatin, but they have a longer half-life of about 90 minutes. They are used to treat functional (hormone-producing) gastrointestinal and pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours and carcinomas.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy drugs stimulate the immune system or directly attack cancer cells. Interferon is a type of protein (cytokine) that occurs naturally in the body. It is normally made in the lymphocytes.

Interferon can improve the way the immune system acts against cancer cells. It is believed that some interferons may also stimulate natural killer cells, T cells and macrophages to boost the immune system's anti-cancer response.

Interferon may act directly on cancer cells to slow their growth or promote their development into cells with a more normal appearance and behaviour.

Interferon alfa (Intron A, Roferon A) is the most widely used immunotherapy in cancer treatment.

Other biological therapies

Sunitinib (Sutent) may be used to treat pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours. It is a tyrosine kinase inhibitor. This means that it blocks tyrosine kinase, which helps send signals inside cancer cells that tell the cells to grow. Sunitinib is also an anti-angiogenesis drug. Angiogenesis is the formation of new blood vessels. Cancer cells need blood vessels to grow, but sunitinib stops new blood vessels from forming. This drug is taken by mouth, or orally.

Everolimus (Afinitor) may also be used to treat pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours. It is an mTOR inhibitor, which means that it blocks cells from making the mTOR protein. This protein can trigger cancer cells to grow and new blood vessels to form, which cancers need to grow. Everolimus is taken by mouth.

Drugs, doses and schedules vary from person to person.

For more detailed information on specific drugs, go to sources of drug information.

See a list of questions to ask your doctor about biological therapy.

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