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Immunotherapy for Small Cell Lung Cancer

Immunotherapy is the use of medicines to stimulate a person’s own immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors

An important part of the immune system is its ability to keep itself from attacking normal cells in the body. To do this, it uses “checkpoints” or proteins on immune cells that need to be turned on (or off) to start an immune response. Cancer cells sometimes use checkpoints to avoid being attacked by the immune system. Drugs that target these checkpoints can be used to treat some people with small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

  • Atezolizumab (Tecentriq) and durvalumab (Imfinzi) target PD-L1, a protein related to PD-1 that is found on some tumor cells and immune cells. Blocking this protein can also help boost the immune response against cancer cells. These drugs can be used as part of the first treatment for advanced SCLC, along with etoposide and a platinum chemo drug (like carboplatin or cisplatin). Either drug can then be continued alone as maintenance therapy. This combination of PD-L1 immunotherapy with chemotherapy also seems to help some people with SCLC live longer.

These drugs are given as an intravenous (IV) infusion, typically every 2, 3, or 4 weeks.

Possible side effects of immunotherapy for SCLC

Side effects of these drugs can include fatigue, cough, nausea, skin rash, decreased appetite, constipation, joint pain, and diarrhea.

Other, more serious side effects occur less often.

Infusion reactions: Some people might have an infusion reaction while getting these drugs. This is like an allergic reaction, and can include fever, chills, flushing of the face, rash, itchy skin, feeling dizzy, wheezing, and trouble breathing. It’s important to tell your doctor or nurse right away if you have any of these symptoms while getting these drugs.

Autoimmune reactions: These drugs remove one of the safeguards on the body's immune system. Sometimes the immune system responds by attacking other parts of the body, which can cause serious or even life-threatening problems in the lungs, intestines, liver, hormone-making glands, kidneys, or other organs.

It’s very important to report any new side effects to someone on your cancer care team as soon as possible. If serious side effects do occur, treatment may need to be stopped and you might be given high doses of corticosteroids to suppress your immune system.

More information about immunotherapy

To learn more about how drugs that work on the immune system are used to treat cancer, see Cancer Immunotherapy.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Revised: November 22, 2023

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