Immunotherapy can be used to treat some people with nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC).
Immunotherapy uses medicines to boost a person’s own immune system to find and destroy cancer cells more successfully.
Immunotherapy typically works on specific proteins in the immune system to increase the immune response. They have different, often less frequent, side effects from chemotherapy.
Some immunotherapy drugs, for example, monoclonal antibodies, work in more than one way to control cancer cells and may also be considered targeted drug therapy because they block a specific protein on the cancer cell to keep it from growing.
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 “checkpoints,” proteins on immune cells 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 system.
Drugs that target these checkpoints (called checkpoint inhibitors) can be used to treat some people with nasopharyngeal cancer.
Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo) are drugs that target PD-1, a protein on T cells in the immune system. PD-1 normally helps keep T cells from attacking other cells in the body. By blocking PD-1, these drugs boost the immune response against cancer cells. This may shrink some tumors or slow their growth.
These drugs can be used after chemotherapy in people with nasopharyngeal cancer that has returned after treatment (recurrent), cannot be treated with surgery or radiation, or that has spread to other parts of the body (metastatic).
Pembrolizumab might also be an option to treat advanced NPC, typically after other treatments have been tried or when no other good treatment options are available, if the cancer cells have a high tumor mutational burden (TMB-H), meaning the cancer cells have many gene mutations.
Nivolumab is given as an intravenous (IV) infusion, typically every 2 or 4 weeks. Pembrolizumab is given as an IV infusion typically every 3 or 6 weeks.
Side effects of these drugs can include fatigue, cough, fever, nausea, diarrhea, cough, skin rash, loss of appetite, constipation, muscle and joint pain, and itching.
Other, more serious side effects that occur less often include:
It’s very important to report any new side effects during or after treatment with any of these drugs to your health care team right away. If you have any serious side effects, you might need to stop treatment and take high doses of steroids to suppress your immune system.
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Hui EP, Chan A, and Le Quynh-Thu. Treatment of recurrent and metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma. In: Shah S, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, Mass.: UpToDate, 2021. https://www.uptodate.com. Accessed June 2, 2021.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. Head and Neck Cancers, Version 3.2021 – April 27, 2021. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/head-and-neck.pdf on June 2, 2021.
Last Revised: August 1, 2022