For people who have advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), doctors may consider a treatment type called immunotherapy. It is a relatively new development in cancer treatment used to help a person’s immune system to better act against cancer10.

The immune system’s ability to detect and destroy abnormal cells usually prevents cancers from developing. However, some cancer cells elude the detection of the immune system and thus lead to the inability of the immune system to recognize and destroy those cancer cells10. 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 checkpoint proteins on immune cells, which act like switches that need to be turned on (or off) to start an immune response. Cancer cells sometimes use these checkpoints to avoid being attacked by the immune system10. Drugs that target checkpoint proteins on immune cells (called checkpoint inhibitors) can be used to treat some people with NSCLC10.

For doctors to know which treatment to prescribe for a lung cancer patient, including immunotherapy, a type of testing known as biomarker testing is required. If you are unsure if you are a candidate for immunotherapy, ask your doctor if it is a suitable treatment option for you. Immunotherapy can be used by itself or in combination with traditional chemotherapy.

Recent advancements have also demonstrated that immunotherapy can improve survival outcomes for certain patients, compared to chemotherapy alone. This tailored-to-fit approach has significantly changed the lung cancer treatment model to improve patient outcomes11.

How Checkpoint Inhibitors Work10

Cancer cells sometimes disguise themselves or block the immune system. The immune system controls activity of the cancer-fighting lymphocytes, called T cells, through a pathway known as ‘PD-1’. But some cancer cells block T cell attack by taking control of the pathway.

PD-1 is a checkpoint protein on T cells. It normally acts as an “off switch” that helps keep the T cells from attacking other cells in the body by attaching to PD-L1, a protein on some normal (and cancer) cells. When this binding happens, a signal is sent to stop the T cell from attacking the other cell. Some cancer cells possess large amounts of PD-L1 and are therefore able to avoid T cell attack. These cancer cells are then free to grow and metastasize.

Understanding if Immunotherapy is Right for You12

Immunotherapy is not for everyone. When considering immunotherapy, your doctor will evaluate your medical history before recommending the most suitable course of action for you. Your doctor may ask:

  • If you have any existing autoimmune conditions (e.g. lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or Crohn’s disease).
  • If you have had a prior organ transplant.
  • You to provide an overview of your liver health history.
  • If you are taking any other medications (e.g. steroids and other prescription medicine, non-prescription medicine such as vitamins and herbal supplements).


For more information on other treatment types, please click here.

Immunotherapy is currently not available in public hospitals in Malaysia.

Learn more about how you can advocate for greater access to innovative treatment.