Lung cancer

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Immunotherapy for lung cancer

Some people with lung cancer have immunotherapy. Immunotherapy helps to strengthen or restore the immune system’s ability to fight cancer. Immunotherapy is sometimes called biological therapy.

You may have immunotherapy to:

  • stop lung cancer cells from growing and spreading
  • kill cancer cells
  • control symptoms of advanced or metastatic lung cancer

Your healthcare team will consider your personal needs to plan the drugs, doses and schedules of immunotherapy. You may also receive other treatments.

PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitors used for non–small cell lung cancer

The immune system normally stops itself from attacking normal cells in the body by using specific proteins called checkpoints, which are made by some immune system cells. PD-1 is an immune checkpoint protein that stops T cells from attacking other cells in the body. It does this by attaching to PD-L1, a protein found on some normal cells and some cancer cells.

Some non–small cell lung cancer cells have a lot of PD-L1, which helps protect them from being attacked by T cells. Cancers with higher PD-L1 respond better to PD-L1 checkpoint immunotherapy drugs that stop the PD-L1 protection.

These PD-L1 checkpoint immunotherapy drugs may be used to treat non–small cell lung cancer:

  • pembrolizumab (Keytruda)
  • nivolumab (Opdivo)
  • durvalumab (Imfinzi)
  • atezolizumab (Tecentriq)

Pembrolizumab

Pembrolizumab is used in different ways to treat different types of lung cancer:

  • To treat metastatic non–small cell lung cancer that has not had been treated with chemotherapy, pembrolizumab may be combined with carboplatin and paclitaxel or nab-paclitaxel (chemotherapy drugs).
  • To treat non-squamous cell non–small cell lung cancer that has not been treated with chemotherapy and does not have mutations in the EGFR gene or ALK gene, pembrolizumab is combined with pemetrexed and cisplatin.
  • To treat non–small cell lung cancer that has mutations in the EGFR gene (EGFR+) or ALK gene (ALK+) and that has stopped responding to a targeted therapy drug used to treat these genetic changes, pembrolizumab is used on its own.

Nivolumab

Nivolumab may be used to treat locally advanced or metastatic non–small cell lung cancer that has stopped responding to chemotherapy or has come back after chemotherapy.

It may also be used to treat non–small cell lung cancer that is EGFR+ or ALK+ that has stopped responding to a targeted therapy drug used to treat these genetic changes.

Nivolumab and ipilimumab may be used in combination with cisplatin or carboplatin plus another chemotherapy drug for metastatic non–small cell lung cancer that does not have EGFR or ALK gene mutations and has very little PD-L1 in the cancer cells.

Atezolizumab

Atezolizumab may be used in combination with bevacizumab (Avastin, Mvasi, Zirabev), paclitaxel and carboplatin as the first treatment for metastatic non–small cell lung cancer that does not have EGFR or ALK gene mutations.

It may also be used to treat locally advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer that has stopped responding to chemotherapy or has come back after chemotherapy.

Atezolizumab may also be used to treat locally advanced or metastatic EGFR+ or ALK+ non–small cell lung cancer that has stopped responding to a targeted therapy drug used to treat these genetic changes.

Durvalumab

Durvalumab may be used to treat stage 3 non–small cell lung cancer that has responded to and is no longer growing after chemoradiation, in people who can’t have surgery because of poor health or because of where the tumour is.

Other immunotherapy drugs used for non–small cell lung cancer

Necitumumab (Portrazza) is a type of monoclonal antibody used to treat locally advanced or metastatic squamous cell non–small lung cancer in people who have not yet had any treatment. It is combined with the chemotherapy drugs gemcitabine (Gemzar) and cisplatin.

Immunotherapy drugs used to treat small cell lung cancer

Immunotherapy is not used for small cell lung cancer very often. Not all immunotherapy drugs that target molecules in non–small cell lung cancer work on the molecules in small cell lung cancer. We need more research to find more drugs that are effective against small cell lung cancer.

Atezolizumab  or durvalumab may be used in combination with the chemotherapy drugs carboplatin and etoposide (Vepesid) as the first treatment of extensive stage small cell lung cancer.

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for non–small cell lung cancer, but everyone’s experience is different. Some people have many side effects. Other people have few or none at all.

Side effects of immunotherapy will depend mainly on the type of drug or drug combination, the dose, how it’s given and your overall health. Some common side effects of immunotherapy for non–small cell lung cancer are:

Report side effects

Be sure to report side effects to the healthcare team. Side effects can happen any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after immunotherapy. Sometimes late side effects develop months or years later. Most side effects go away on their own or can be treated, but some side effects may last a long time or become permanent.

Your healthcare team is there to help. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Information about specific cancer drugs

Details on specific drugs change regularly. Find out more about sources of drug information and where to get details on specific drugs.

Questions to ask about immunotherapy

Find out more about immunotherapy. To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about immunotherapy.

monoclonal antibody

A substance that can find and bind to a particular target molecule (antigen) on a cancer cell.

Monoclonal antibodies can interfere with a cell’s function or can be used to carry drugs, toxins or radioactive material directly to a tumour.

cytokine release syndrome

A side effect that can happen after treatment with some types of immunotherapy drugs when a large number of immune substances called cytokines are released very quickly into the blood.

Symptoms include headache, nausea, fever, rash and breathing problems. Cytokine release syndrome can produce mild or moderate reactions to immunotherapy, but sometimes it can be severe or life-threatening.

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