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Immunotherapy is sometimes used for treating advanced colorectal cancer. This innovative treatment involves using medication that boosts the patient’s immune system, helping it to more effectively find and destroy cancer cells. Immunotherapy may be implemented when chemotherapy does not stop a tumor’s growth or if a tumor can’t be successfully removed with surgery. It may also be a treatment option when cancer recurs or metastasizes (spreads to other areas).

Immunotherapy treatment options for colorectal cancer patients

There are different types of immunotherapy that work by aiding the immune system in different ways. One kind of immunotherapy with FDA-approved options for colorectal cancer is immune checkpoint inhibitors.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors

In order for the immune system to know which cells to attack (cancer cells versus normal, healthy cells), it relies on “checkpoint” proteins, which need to be turned on to signal an immune system response. Cancer cells can sometimes trigger these checkpoints to avoid being detected and attacked by the immune system. Checkpoint inhibitors work by targeting these proteins and switching them back on.

There are two immune checkpoint inhibitors that may be used for colorectal cancer: nivolumab (Opdivo®) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda®). These immunotherapies are PD-1 inhibitors, meaning that they target the PD-1 protein on the immune system’s T cells. By blocking this protein, the immune system is able to find and attack cancer cells in the body. Another immunotherapy that is sometimes used for colorectal cancer is ipilimumab (Yervoy®), which targets a different protein on T cells: CTLA-4.

Potential side effects of colorectal cancer immunotherapy

The use of checkpoint inhibitors can cause side effects such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Coughing
  • Nausea
  • Itching or skin rashes
  • Decreased appetite
  • Constipation or diarrhea

In some cases, the immune system may begin attacking noncancerous cells in other parts of the body, resulting in other side effects of the lungs, liver, kidneys, intestines or other organs. The side effects in these cases can sometimes be serious, so it’s important to always inform your physicians of any changes in your side effects.

Moffitt’s approach to colorectal cancer immunotherapy

The colorectal cancer team in Moffitt’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Program takes a multispecialty approach to treatment. The decision to incorporate immunotherapy into a patient’s treatment plan is reached collaboratively, considering all aspects of the patient’s unique circumstances. As a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, Moffitt offers colorectal cancer patients comprehensive treatment and supportive care, as well as a robust clinical trials program featuring immunotherapy options that are not available in other settings.

For more information about colorectal cancer immunotherapy, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. A referral is not required to consult with an oncologist specializing in colorectal cancer at Moffitt Cancer Center.