Immunotherapy for Pancreatic Cancer

Immunotherapy is the use of medicines to stimulate a person’s own immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively. Certain types of immunotherapy can be used to treat pancreatic cancer.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors

An important part of the immune system is its ability to keep itself from attacking the body's normal cells. 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 keep the immune system from attacking them. But drugs that target these checkpoints hold a lot of promise as cancer treatments.

Drugs called checkpoint inhibitors can be used for people whose pancreatic cancer cells have tested positive for specific gene changes, such as a high level of microsatellite instability (MSI-H), or changes in one of the mismatch repair (MMR) genes. Changes in MSI or in MMR genes (or both) are often seen in people with Lynch syndrome

The drugs are used for people whose cancer starts growing again after chemotherapy. They might also be used to treat people whose cancer can't be removed with surgery, has come back (recurred) after treatment, or has spread to other parts of the body (metastasized).

PD-1 inhibitor

Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) is a drug that targets PD-1, a checkpoint protein on immune system cells called T cells, that normally helps keep these cells from attacking normal cells in the body. By blocking PD-1, this drug boosts the immune response against pancreatic cancer cells and can often shrink tumors.

This drug is given as an intravenous (IV) infusion every 2 or 3 weeks.

Side effects can include fatigue, cough, nausea, itching, skin rash, decreased appetite, constipation, joint pain, and diarrhea.

Other, more serious side effects occur less often. This drug works by basically removing the brakes from 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 promptly. 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.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma. V.1.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/pancreatic.pdf on December 19, 2018.

Ryan DP. Chemotherapy for advanced exocrine pancreatic cancer. UpToDate website. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/chemotherapy-for-advanced-exocrine-pancreatic-cancer. Updated Nov 29, 2018. Accessed December 19, 2018.

Last Medical Review: February 11, 2019 Last Revised: February 11, 2019

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