Because cancer cells are smart enough to disguise themselves and escape the typical response of the immune system, immunotherapy seeks to reignite the immune system so that it can recognize and attack these sneaky cells.

In a recent Facebook Live chat, Ursula Matulonis, MD, director of Gynecologic Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, discussed the research advances, relevant clinical trials, and the excitement around the use of immunotherapy and its approaches for treating all gynecologic cancer.

“Immunotherapy has found a real significant role in how we treat cancer, just in the past few years,” says Matulonis.

In gynecologic cancers, immunotherapy is being used in all stages of treatment, and researchers are trying to enhance the effects of different immunotherapy approaches.

“For ovarian cancer, we’ve tested immunotherapy for women who have recurrent ovarian cancer, but now combinations of therapies, such as checkpoint blockades, anti-vascular drugs, and PARP inhibitors — which interfere with DNA repair — are all being tested in the upfront treatment of ovarian cancer,” said Matulonis.

Eligibility for many of these ongoing trials is wide, but there are certain cases in which an overt, clinically active autoimmune disease can interfere with a patient’s cell response to immunotherapy. New research coming out of Dana-Farber is exploring neoantigen vaccines, which, combined with checkpoint inhibitors, exploit the new proteins cancer cells create. This research is also being conducted all around the country.

Matulonis also discussed immunotherapy’s side effects, as well as how it differs from chemotherapy. Because immunotherapy drugs are meant to stimulate the immune system, patients can experience inflammation of the lungs, called pneumonitis, inflammation of the liver, rash, and endocrine problems. Matulonis emphasized the importance of anticipating these side effects with a team of physicians who have expertise in these areas.

This article was originally published on April 18, 2018, by Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. It is republished with permission.