Immunotherapy and Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest of the cancers affecting the female reproductive system. Since early symptoms may be nonspecific or absent, it often goes untreated and progresses to advanced stages when finally discovered. This oversight is largely because early-stage ovarian cancer rarely shows symptoms or only mild symptoms, which can be confused for other, less serious digestive issues.
A patient’s treatment path depends on which stage of ovarian cancer it is in and how far it has spread. According to the Mayo Clinic, ovarian cancer treatment most commonly includes some combination of surgery and chemotherapy.
But there may soon be more options available, according to the Cancer Research Institute (CRI), as more clinical trials continue to test new immunotherapy treatments.
What is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy refers to a class of drugs that uses or supplements the patient’s immune system to help kill cancer cells. There’s currently just one FDA-approved immunotherapy drug available to treat ovarian cancer, though clinical trials for additional immunotherapy drugs are underway.
The drug, called Keytruda, has been approved for use in women with certain types of ovarian cancer, and is already used to treat other types of cancer. According to CRI, women with stage 1 tumors don’t generally need to consider joining clinical trials for immunotherapy, as their survival rates are usually greater than 95 percent after undergoing comprehensive surgery to remove the cancerous tumor.
CRI suggests immunotherapy may be more beneficial for women with recurrent or advanced-stage ovarian cancer resistant to readily available chemotherapy drugs.
Immunotherapy for ovarian cancer is typically administered multiple times per week on a schedule worked out by a patient and their medical team. Keytruda is given to the patient through an intravenous line (IV) over the course of 30 minutes.
Keytruda fights ovarian cancer by targeting a protein called PD-1, which is found on certain immune cells often referred to as T cells. The PD-1 protein is supposed to prevent T cells from attacking other cells in the body. By targeting this protein, Keytruda enables the body to boost its immune response against the cancer cells in an effort to shrink cancerous tumors or inhibit their growth.
Potential side effects of immunotherapy
As with any cancer treatment, immunotherapy for ovarian cancer can have side effects. Common symptoms include fatigue, cough, nausea, itching, skin rash, loss of appetite, constipation, joint pain and diarrhea. In some cases, immunotherapy can even create an autoimmune reaction, in which the immune system starts to attack other parts of the body.
Reactions sometimes happen during the infusion and when the drug is being administered. Chills, fever or flushing of the face are all possible infusion reactions. Similar to other kinds of allergic reactions, infusion ones can result in dizziness, wheezing, shortness of breath, rash or itchy skin.
Be sure to tell your doctor or nurse right away if you experience any of these reactions to avoid potentially serious complications and make required adjustments to the medication.
Although certain risks and uncertainties are involved, growing research and interest in immunotherapy treatments offer promising new tools to treat certain types of ovarian cancer. If you have questions about your eligibility status for immunotherapy, talk to your doctor to find out which treatment method is best for you.