Immunotherapy for Ovarian Cancer

Immunotherapy is the use of medicines to stimulate a person’s own immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively.  

Immune checkpoint inhibitors

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. But drugs that target these checkpoints can be used to treat some people with ovarian cancer.

  • Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) targets PD-1, a protein on certain immune cells (called T cells) that normally helps keep these cells from attacking other cells in the body. By blocking PD-1, these drugs boost the immune response against cancer cells. This can shrink some tumors or slow their growth.

Pembrolizumab can be used in people with certain types of advanced ovarian cancer that have high levels of MSI or changes in the MMR genes whose cancer starts growing after chemotherapy or other drug treatments. 

This immunotherapy drug is given as an intravenous (IV) infusion every 3 weeks.

Possible side effects of immunotherapy

Side effects of these drugs can include fatigue, cough, nausea, itching, skin rash, loss of appetite, constipation, joint pain, and diarrhea.

Other, more serious side effects occur less often.

Infusion reactions: Some people might have an infusion reaction while getting these drugs. This is like an allergic reaction, and can include fever, chills, flushing of the face, rash, itchy skin, feeling dizzy, wheezing, and trouble breathing. It’s important to tell your doctor or nurse right away if you have any of these symptoms while getting these drugs.

Autoimmune reactions: These drugs work by basically removing one of the safeguards on the body’s immune system. Sometimes the immune system starts attacking other parts of the body, which can cause serious or even life-threatening problems in the lungs, intestines, liver, hormone-making glands, kidneys, or other organs.

It’s very important to report any new side effects to your health care team as soon as possible. If serious side effects do occur, treatment may need to be stopped and you may get high doses of corticosteroids to suppress your immune system.

More information about immunotherapy

To learn more about how drugs that work on the immune system are used to treat cancer, see Cancer Immunotherapy.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Konstantinopoulos PA, Norquist B, Lacchetti C, Armstrong D, Grisham RN, Goodfellow PJ, et al. Germline and Somatic Tumor Testing in Epithelial Ovarian Cancer: ASCO Guideline. J Clin Oncol. 2020. doi: 10.1200/JCO.19.02960. [Epub ahead of print].

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN)--Ovarian Cancer Including Fallopian Tube Cancer and Primary Peritoneal Cancer. V1.2020. Accessed March 27, 2020 from https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/ovarian.pdf.

Tewari KS, Penson RT, and Monk BJ. Chapter 77: Ovarian Cancer. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.

Last Revised: April 3, 2020

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