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Published on September 30, 2016

New immunotherapy drugs expand options in cancer treatment

Keytruda® and Opdivo® have been all over news headlines recently. They belong to a new class of cancer drugs known as PD-1 inhibitors, which use the body's immune system to attack tumor cells.

While immunotherapy has been used for years as the standard of care for kidney cancer and melanoma, PD-1 inhibitors present brand new treatment options for other tumor sites.

"We're using these drugs routinely in the clinic right now," states Gundersen Health System medical oncologist Kurt Oettel, MD, FACP. "We have seen dramatic responses and it hasn't been limited to kidney cancer and melanoma. It has been astonishing and really rewarding because other tumor sites that had not been immunologically sensitive have suddenly now become sensitive, particularly non-small cell lung cancer."

On a daily basis, Gundersen is treating 150 lung cancer patients which remains the leading cause of cancer death worldwide. This new treatment option could positively impact many patients in the Tri-state Region living with the disease.

"PD-1 inhibitors work by blocking a protein called PD-1 [programmed cell death protein 1] that appears on the surface of immune cells," explains Dr. Oettel. "The drugs outsmart the tumor. They take down the tumor's shield so the immune system can suddenly recognize a cancer, whereas in the past, it hadn't been able to."

Not only have the drugs proven to be effective, but there are relatively few side effects. "These drugs are well tolerated with the main side effect being autoimmune processes. Conditions like colitis or inflammatory bowel syndrome may be exasperated, for example. But by and large, they are generally well managed," he says.

PD-1 inhibitors are being tested in many other tumor types via clinical trials and will be an important piece of cancer treatment going forward.

To learn more about PD-1 inhibitors or to refer a patient to the Gundersen Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders, contact Dr. Oettel via MedLink at (800) 336-5465. In La Crosse, call (608) 775-5465.

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