Nov 14, 2017 9:00 AM

liquid being dropped from pipette into test tube

Updated October 2018

When abnormal cells—including cancer cells—arise in the body, the immune system sets out to find and destroy them. And it does succeed in killing some cancer cells. But others can be much harder to destroy. That’s because cancer cells have many ways of avoiding the immune system:

  • They make it hard for the immune system to find them.
  • They turn off immune system cells.
  • They make other cells nearby release substances that slow the immune system and speed up tumor growth.

How Does Immunotherapy Work?

Immunotherapy is a new kind of cancer treatment. It works around the cancer’s defenses and makes the immune system’s response stronger. It is an effective treatment for several different types of cancer.

The FDA approved the immunotherapy drug Keytruda (generic name pembrolizumab) for any cancer with tumors caused by many mutations. These tumors are called microsatellite instable. 

“Only 2–3% of patients with pancreatic cancer respond well to immunotherapy. As we create the treatment plan, we test the tumors of stage 4 patients to see if they are microsatellite instable,” says Ignacio Garrido-Laguna, MD, PhD. 

“Testing shows us the patients for whom immunotherapy is most likely to work. We make it part of their treatment plan,” he adds. 

The Future of Immunotherapy for Pancreatic Cancer Patients

For now, immunotherapy has a limited role in pancreatic cancer treatment. But clinical trials hold promise for treating pancreatic cancer with immunotherapy in the future, says Garrido. HCI is participating in several clinical trials for this disease. 

Find a clinical trial.
Learn about pancreatic cancer.
For more information, live chat with a health educator or contact the Cancer Learning Center.

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Cancer touches all of us.

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