Who is Eligible for Immunotherapy?

If you are considering immunotherapy, it is important to work with a treatment team in a cancer center that is experienced and has expertise in this kind of cancer treatment.
– Dr. Samir Khleif

Important to Know:

  • Immunotherapy is being used or tested in a wide variety of cancers
  • Today, most immunotherapy is available through clinical trials for people with advanced cancers
  • In many trials, for many types of cancer, immunotherapy is producing high response rates and long lasting responses
  • Clinical trials are critical to advancing cancer treatment
  • The results of treatment using immunotherapy are very promising, but there is still a great deal of work to be done to determine which people will benefit from these treatments

There is widespread interest and excitement throughout the cancer community about the potential for using immunotherapy to treat many different kinds of cancer. As researchers learn more about the interaction between our immune system and cancer, they will be able to apply that knowledge to more and more treatment options. 

Most people who receive immunotherapy today have cancers that are advanced. Their cancers have either recurred and spread after primary treatment, or were diagnosed with advanced stage cancers. These are often the same people who do not have effective treatment options available to them. 

Dr. Schuchter: Who Benefits From 

As the field of immunotherapy moves forward, researchers will begin new clinical trials with people who are at high risk for having their cancers recur or spread. 

Clinical trials are essential for advancing any new treatment. – Dr. Lynn Schuchter

Before any drug is approved, it is tested in clinical trials. This is important because it is the only way to gather the information needed to establish whether the drug is safe and effective. 

Once the FDA approves a drug, it can be given to anyone with that type of cancer. At this time, most immunotherapy is still given in specialized cancer centers and mostly as part of a clinical trial.

Dr. Schuchter: More About Clinical Trials

There are some people who cannot receive immunotherapy. These individuals often have health problems that make it impossible to take these drugs safely.

You should always discuss treatment decisions with your doctor and treatment team.

Promising Results

There is genuine excitement about the promise of immunotherapy. For many types of cancer, even those that have traditionally been very hard to treat, the response rates to these therapies are higher than those from other types of therapy. One very encouraging factor is that many of these responses are very “durable,” or long lasting. Responses that were once measured in weeks or months are now lasting for years.

It is important to know that when people with cancer receive chemotherapy or radiation therapy, it is usually possible to measure the effects of the treatment within a few days or weeks. But, some immunotherapy drugs take longer to work—to stimulate the immune system.  

This means that it can take longer to see the benefits of treatment when they occur. This is also called a delayed response. In some instances, the cancer can appear to get worse before it gets better. This is thought to be the result of an inflammatory reaction, not the actual growth of the cancer cells. 

Suzanne, Nurse Practitioner: More On
Delayed Response

This wait to see if the treatment is working can be a difficult time for many people receiving these drugs. They don’t know if the response is delayed or if the therapy is not effective. Many doctors now wait longer to do scans and other tests to measure the response to immunotherapy in order to give the drugs time to work. 

Nicole, Social Worker: Help With Making A
Treatment Decision

In many cases, the responses are partial, meaning the tumor shrinks or remains stable, but does not disappear. It is also important to remember that not everyone with cancer will respond to these therapies

Another challenging problems facing cancer research today is drug resistance, which means that even when a person does achieve a good response to a treatment, the cancer cells often become resistant over a period of time and the tumor can begin growing again.

Researchers are working to discover ways to overcome this problem. As new therapies emerge, there is an increasing need to understand why some people with cancer respond and others do not. This is critical to assuring that every patient receives the treatment that will provide the most benefit with the fewest side effects.

Updated August 12, 2014