Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer

Immunotherapy drugs, also known as immune checkpoint inhibitors, target cancer cells by recruiting and activating the body’s own immune cells to kill cancer cells. This approach—used for about seven years—has dramatically changed the treatment of patients with advanced lung cancer. The hope is to use immunotherapy on patients who are at even earlier stages of the disease.

According to Nasser Altorki, MD, professor of cardiothoracic surgery and Chief of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center, most people use the word, “cancer,” in a generic fashion.

“In fact,” Dr. Altorki explains, “The tumor mass consists of a combination of cancer cells—bad actors that have the capacity to grow and spread--and adjacent immune cells.”

Despite of this intimate proximity of the cancer cells and immune cells, the immune cells are unable to recognize and eliminate the adjacent bad actors, because the cancer cells secrete substances that incapacitate the immune system.

Enter the immune check point inhibitors, which target substances paralyzing the immune cells and unleash the patient’s own immune cells against the cancer cells. The result? Immunotherapy using immune checkpoint inhibitors has become a standard of care for many patients with advanced stage 4 or stage 3 lung cancer, and have resulted in significant improvement in survival and quality of life for patients diagnosed at more advanced stages.

“We’re also working on advancing that form of treatment to patients who have even earlier operable lung cancer,” says Dr Altorki, adding that Weill Cornell Medicine has completed a clinical trial in patients diagnosed with early stage lung cancer with spectacular results. “We hope that immunotherapy will move to the forefront of treatment of early-stage lung cancer and lead to improved outcomes.”