Drugs that empower the immune system to recognize and fight cancer have proven to be a very effective way to treat patients with lung cancer. MSK has been a pioneer in developing this approach, known as immunotherapy.
In 2015, the FDA approved two new immunotherapy drugs, nivolumab (Opdivo®) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda®), for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer that has stopped responding to standard chemotherapy — in other words, as second-line therapy.
Both of these medications block a protein called PD-1 found on immune cells. PD-1 acts like a brake on the immune system, tamping down immune responses. Nivolumab and pembrolizumab release this brake, allowing the immune system to mount a stronger attack against cancer.
In addition to these FDA-approved drugs, several experimental immunotherapy drugs are being tested in clinical trials for patients with lung cancer.
Clinical trials are testing immunotherapy drugs in all settings: before and after surgery for early stage lung cancers, as first-line therapy in patients with advanced lung cancers, and in patients who have previously received chemotherapy. There are trials available for multiple forms of lung cancer, including non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. MSK patients may be eligible to enroll in these and other clinical trials of promising new lung cancer treatments.