Immunotherapy for Ovarian Cancer

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2022 | Last updated: April 2022

Ovarian cancer treatment involves using different kinds of therapies to treat the cancer. What is effective for one person might not be right for another person, so the kind of treatment and specific drugs can vary. One type of treatment used in some people with ovarian cancer is immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy is the use of drugs to help stimulate a person’s immune system. This helps it recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively.1

How do immunotherapy drugs work?

There are different forms of immunotherapy drugs. One class of these drugs is known as immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs).

The immune system needs to keep itself from attacking normal, healthy cells. To help the immune system do this, there are “checkpoints.” These are proteins on immune cells that need to be turned on or off to trigger an immune response.1

Sometimes, cancer cells take advantage of these proteins to escape detection or attack by the immune system. Some drugs target these proteins, or checkpoints, and prevent them from turning off. This allows the immune system to attack and destroy the cancer cells, including certain forms of ovarian cancer.1

Formulations of immunotherapy drugs for ovarian cancer

As of early 2021, Keytruda® (pembrolizumab) is the only immunotherapy drug approved to treat certain forms of ovarian cancer. This drug targets PD-1, a protein on T-cells that usually stops the cells from attacking other cells in the body. When PD-1 is blocked, the T-cells can attack the cancer cells, boosting the body’s immune response. This may help shrink tumors or slow down the growth of cancer.1

In the way it is used to treat ovarian cancer, Ketruda may be described as a tissue-agnostic drug. Tissue-agnostic therapy is a type of treatment for any kind of cancer as long as it has a specific molecular change or biomarker that is targeted by the treatment. This is different from other treatments that depend on the type of tissue or location of the cancer.1

Keytruda may be used for the treatment of certain solid tumor cancers with specific biomarkers. These include some tumors that are considered tumor mutational burden-high (TMB-H), microsatellite instability-high (MSI-H), or mismatch repair deficient (dMMR). This may include some ovarian cancers. In these instances, the ovarian cancer should have gotten worse after other types of treatment and there are no other available treatment options.1

What are possible side effects of immunotherapy?

Side effects can vary depending on the specific drug you are taking. Common side effects may include:1

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Appetite loss
  • Rash
  • Diarrhea
  • Joint pain
  • Itching

Some people have immunotherapy infusion reactions similar to an allergic reaction. Notify your healthcare team immediately if you experience any of the following signs:1

  • Dizziness
  • Wheezing
  • Flushing
  • Fever or chills
  • Itchy skin
  • Breathing trouble

Autoimmune reactions can also happen during treatment with immunotherapy. This is because these drugs remove the safeguard that usually stops your immune system from attacking your own body. When this is gone, the immune system sometimes attacks certain organs or parts of the body, and you begin to experience problems that can be serious or life-threatening.1

These are not all the possible side effects of immunotherapy drugs. Talk to your doctor about what to expect or if you experience any changes that concern you during treatment with immunotherapy drugs.

Things to consider

The use of immunotherapy for ovarian cancer is still in its early stages of being explored. Chemotherapy is often the most effective treatment. However, some advanced ovarian cancers become resistant to those drugs over time. This is where immunotherapy may come in. Researchers are also studying intraperitoneal immunotherapy for ovarian cancer.3

Immunotherapy may not be right for everyone. Talk with your doctor about whether it is right for your cancer and whether it might be an option for you.

Before beginning treatment with immunotherapy, talk to your doctor about any other health issues you have. Also tell your doctor about any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. This includes over-the-counter drugs.

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