Oncologist and executive medical director of the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute, Mark A. Socinski, MD, is an internationally recognized expert in the development of new treatment strategies for advanced non-small cell lung cancer and small-cell lung cancer. He’s extremely optimistic about the use of immunotherapy and shared some helpful information about how this type of treatment can affect your cancer journey.
First, what is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy harnesses your body’s own immune system to fight diseases —
in this case, cancer. And unlike chemotherapy, which kills cancerous cells, immunotherapy acts on the cells of your immune system to attack cancer. This can be done in a couple of ways:
- By stimulating your own immune system to work harder or smarter
- Providing your immune system with components, such as man-made immune system proteins
“With immunotherapy, patients are given an IV,” Dr. Socinski says. “The way it works is there’s a PD-1 receptor; people call it the brakes of the immune system. If you push the brakes, what happens? You stop. And so the immune system stops. If you have a treatment that releases the brakes, the immune system can go back to work, recognize cancer and destroy it. Antibodies to both PD-1 (proteins that allow cancer cells to suppress the immune system) and PD-L1 (the ligand that binds to PD-1) have been developed.”
It’s appealing to many patients because “it’s like holistic medicine,” he explains. “You’re engaging your own immune system. You’re using a therapy that doesn’t have much in the way of side effects.”
What about those side effects?
“Ninety to 95 percent of patients tolerate immunotherapies almost like you’re giving them a saline IV,” Dr. Socinski says. “In five to ten percent of patients, there can be adverse effects. It’s almost like an auto-immune disease.”
Dr. Socinski lists the most common side effects like diarrhea, skin rash, thyroiditis, lung inflammation, encephalitis, and kidney injury.
Could this work for me?
For those who have been diagnosed with lung cancer, Dr. Socinski has many words of encouragement. “The number of options for treatment has greatly expanded over the past decade,” he says. “We have a better understanding of the biology of lung cancer now. We have everything from oral therapies to immunotherapies to chemotherapy that can help you.”
He believes almost every lung cancer patient could be a candidate for immunotherapy. “As long as they don’t have a contraindication (a situation where a therapy, surgery or other procedure shouldn’t be used because it could be harmful to an individual) for the use of immunotherapy, like an autoimmune disease that could cause problems.”
Who can I talk to about it?
Dr. Socinski recommends having patients see a doctor who specializes in their specific disease.
“If I need my brakes fixed, I want to go to the guy who specializes in brakes,” he says. “And if I have lung cancer, I want to see a doctor who is focused on lung cancer alone either in consultation with your oncologist or as your primary oncologist.”
Immunotherapy’s potential benefits have been promoted by many oncologists for decades. It’s not only relevant to lung cancer patients; there’s a growing list of immunotherapy treatments used for other cancers like melanoma, Hodgkin’s disease and cancers of the kidney, bladder, and head and neck cancer.