What is Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer?

One of the most powerful mechanisms in the human body is the immune system. Fighting disease within the body that should not be there. Yet, cancer can be really smart and fool the body’s immune system into thinking cancer cells should not be attacked by the immune system.

In the past few years, lung cancer research has discovered new therapies that teach the immune system to recognize cancer cells as bad cells that need to be destroyed. Immunotherapy for lung cancer allows the immune system to do its work in battling cancer.

More recently, by evaluating what strategies cancer cells use to evade an individual’s immune system, drugs have been developed to overcome this evasion or modify the body’s immune response to the presence of cancer. This type of treatment is referred to as immunotherapy.

The immune system within our bodies is very powerful. But, cancer cells find ways to hide from the immune system. In the past few years, scientists have found medications that can be used to stop cancer cells from being able to hide from the immune system and allow it to do its work in battling the cancer.

Immunotherapy for lung cancer

Find out more about immunotherapy for lung cancer, what patients are benefitting from it now, and what is expected for the future of immunotherapy for lung cancer in these Hope With Answers videos.

Watch patient advocate Lisa Goldman in conversation with Dr. Jonathan Goldman, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, discussing immunotherapy for lung cancer. Then watch Dr. Goldman discuss more information on immunotherapy for cancer patients with patient advocate Janet Freeman-Daily.

The In-Depth Immunotherapy Hope With Answers℠ video answers the deepest questions about immunotherapy for lung cancer. Dr. Kellie Smith, of Johns Hopkins University and LCFA grant award winner, answers the questions posed by lung cancer patient and advocate, Lysa Buonanno.

How does Immunotherapy for lung cancer work?

Our immune systems work around the clock protecting our bodies from “foreign” substances such as bacteria and viruses. We know that this immune “surveillance” also protects us from cancer, by recognizing a cell that has become cancerous as something foreign. When this surveillance system fails, cancers begin to grow. An everyday example of this process occurring naturally is in the case of pregnancy…this is the mechanism by which a fetus can grow in a woman’s body without being identified as foreign and hence being attacked.

“Cancer cells are the teenagers of cells… they’re pretty normal, but they behave badly.”
– Dr. David Johnson

How do cancers evade our immune system? Spontaneous mutations in the genes of a cancer cell cause the cells to be altered in such a way that they can no longer be recognized by our bodies as something foreign. They can also produce substances or proteins that can shield them from immune attack, as outlined below.

What are the types of immunotherapies used for lung cancer treatment?

There are several types of immunotherapy for cancer, but the approach has proven to be effective in both non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients, and small cell lung cancer (SCLC) patients. Immunotherapies are drugs that work on immunologic checkpoints which are a normal part of the immune system. Their role is to prevent an immune response from being so strong that it destroys healthy cells in the body.


A patient’s cancer cell can have on its surface a complex molecule that activates the PD-1 receptor on a patient’s T-cells. PDL-1 is a protein that acts as a kind of “brake” to keep the body’s immune responses under control.

Drugs known as “ANTI-PD-L1” break that bond which then allows the tumor cells to be attacked by T-cells.

A very important finding about immunotherapy is that when a patient responds to the treatment, the response can last longer than conventional chemotherapy. Scientists are studying why some patients’ cancers respond, as well as why other patients’ cancers do not.

Combinations of these drugs with chemotherapy and/or other targeted therapies are also being investigated and several combinations have been approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment for certain NSCLC and SCLC patients.

Ask your oncologist about the latest advancements in immunotherapy treatment for lung cancer.

Who benefits from immunotherapy for lung cancer?

Many lung cancer patients, both SCLC patients and NSCLC patients might benefit from immunotherapy. There are combinations of immunotherapy and chemotherapy that are effective as a first line therapy for certain NSCLC lung cancer patients. There are some SCLC patients with extensive stage disease who will benefit from immunotherapy either alone or in combination with chemotherapy.

Clinical trials are ongoing and new, effective treatments are being tested, evaluated and FDA approved regularly. Ongoing research and innovation in science and technology has led to significant progress for all forms of lung cancer.

What side effects are caused by immune checkpoint inhibitors?

Immune checkpoint inhibitors (also called immunotherapy) can cause side effects that affect patients in different ways.

Common immunotherapy side effects include:

  • Rash
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue

Discuss possible side effects with your doctor.

What is the latest Immunotherapy research?

Dr. Adrian Sacher’s LCFA-funded lung cancer research grant is working to better understand how the body’s immune system responds to cancer cells. Dr. Sacher’s research will look at developing immunotherapies that will:

  • Keep a patient’s immune system from becoming too strong
  • Activate receptors in specific patients

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Dr. Sacher’s research is his search for a vaccine for lung cancer.

Dr. Spakowicz’s LCFA Funded research studies the interplay between the microbiome and immuno-oncology (IO) therapy responses. The role of the microbiome in cancer in relationship to immunocology is an area of high importance as immunotherapy for lung cancer becomes more common in advanced cancer treatment.

FDA-Approved Immunotherapy Treatments

Immunotherapy 411

Hear from top cancer specialist about how immunotherapy works


More people are living with lung cancer.

Research advances like those highlighted in our Hope With Answers℠ video series are the key.


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Finding reliable sources for information can be difficult for lung cancer patients – LCFA keeps you updated.


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