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New Lung Cancer Treatments: 8 Advancements in Research

Medically reviewed by Madison Saxton, PharmD
Written by Emily Wagner, M.S.
Posted on June 5, 2024

Doctors and scientists are constantly finding new and better ways to treat lung cancer. In the past few years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several lung cancer treatments. Some medications are brand new to the market. Others were previously approved but have been expanded to be used in more situations.

In this article, we’ll discuss new treatment options available for lung cancer and how they work. We’ll also cover new therapies that are still in studies but show promise in treating lung cancer.

If you want to learn more about any of these treatments, talk to your doctor or oncologist (cancer specialist). They can explain how a new medication may fit into your lung cancer treatment plan.

Approving New Treatments for Lung Cancer

The FDA has approved several lung cancer treatments since 2021. However, not all of these drugs are “new” — many have been used to treat other cancers or are already used for lung cancer in certain situations. This article will cover both the brand-new drugs and newly approved uses of already-existing drugs.

Clinical Trials Are Needed To Approve New Treatments

Before a new drug can be given to the general public, it first has to be tested in oncology clinical trials. These large clinical studies compare a new treatment to the current standard of cancer care plus a placebo (inactive drug).

Clinical trials also study new ways for previously approved drugs to be used in different diseases. For example, a drug already approved for one type of cancer needs to be studied in other types of cancers before the FDA approves it.

The FDA also needs clinical trials to approve lung cancer therapies for new “indications” or groups of people. For example, a drug is approved for treating stage 2 lung cancer. Now researchers have found it’s also effective for treating stage 3 disease. The FDA has “approved” the new indication, and doctors can prescribe it to more people.

Immunotherapy Treatments for Lung Cancer

Immunotherapies for lung cancer activate the immune system to fight cancer. There are several types of immunotherapies that work in different ways to shrink lung cancer tumors. Some have been around for several years, while others are currently in clinical trials.

1. Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors

Some lung cancers “hide” from the immune system by making proteins on the surface of cancer cells. Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) block these proteins so your immune system can find and destroy the cancer. The FDA has approved several ICIs for treating non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

In recent years, the FDA has expanded approval for many ICI drugs. This means that oncologists can now prescribe ICIs for nearly all stages of lung cancer. Examples of ICIs include:

  • Atezolizumab (Tecentriq)
  • Nivolumab (Opdivo)
  • Pembrolizumab (Keytruda)

Cemiplimab-rwlc (Libtayo) is an ICI that works by blocking the PD-L1 protein found on tumor cells. The FDA approved cemiplimab-rwlc in 2021 as a first-line treatment for people with NSCLC whose tumors have high PD-L1 levels. This is a treatment option for people who can’t be treated with surgery or chemoradiation (chemotherapy and radiation therapy together).

The FDA also approved the combination of tremelimumab (Imjudo) with durvalumab (Imfinzi) and chemotherapy for people with metastatic (stage 4) NSCLC. This means their lung cancer has spread to distant parts of the body. Tremelimumab works by blocking the CTLA-4 protein found on the surface of immune cells known as T cells.

2. HER2-Targeted Therapies

Some NSCLC tumors have mutations (changes) in the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) gene. HER2 is responsible for sending growth signals in cancer cells. Too much HER2 causes them to grow and divide uncontrollably.

The FDA approved fam-trastuzumab deruxtecan-nxki (Enhertu) in 2022 for treating metastatic NSCLC with HER2 mutations. The drug is specifically used for metastatic cancer and in people who can’t be treated with surgery.

Fam-trastuzumab contains an antibody (protein drug) that specifically targets HER2 proteins on the surface of lung cancer cells. A chemotherapy drug is attached to the antibody. When fam-trastuzumab attaches to cancer cells, it delivers chemotherapy directly to the tumor.

The FDA previously approved this drug for treating people with HER2-positive breast cancer. Fam-trastuzumab is now the first treatment approved for people with HER2-positive lung cancer.

3. EGFR-Targeted Therapies

Lung cancer researchers have found that 15 percent to 20 percent of NSCLC tumors have mutations in the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) gene. Mutated EGFR proteins send too many growth signals in cancer cells, causing them to grow uncontrollably.

The FDA has approved several EGFR inhibitors to block these proteins in NSCLC. This means they can no longer send growth signals, and the tumors shrink.

One example is amivantamab-vmjw (Rybrevant), which was approved in 2021. Amivantamab-vmjw is a bispecific antibody, meaning it targets two different proteins in lung cancer cells. Amivantamab-vmjw is given to people with NSCLC who have mutations known as EGFR exon 20 insertions. It’s given to people with stage 3 or 4 NSCLC whose cancer progressed after chemotherapy.

Bispecific antibodies were developed to prevent tumors from becoming resistant to treatment.

4. Bispecific Antibody for Small Cell Lung Cancer

Another bispecific antibody, tarlatamab-dlle (Imdelltra), was approved in 2024 to treat extensive-stage small cell lung cancer. It may be used in people whose cancer has progressed despite treatment with platinum-based chemotherapy.

5. CAR T-Cell Therapies

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a treatment made from your own immune cells. Your doctor takes your T cells and reengineers them to fight your lung cancer with a powerful immune response. CAR T-cell therapies are designed to target specific proteins on the outside of cancer cells.

The FDA has approved several CAR T-cell therapies for treating blood cancers — but not lung cancer. Researchers are still studying how these drugs work for lung cancer in clinical trials.

6. Vaccines for Lung Cancer

Vaccines are highly effective in preventing viral infections and certain cancers. Now researchers are studying whether certain types of vaccines can help treat and prevent lung cancer. The FDA hasn’t approved any lung cancer vaccines yet, but some research is promising.

Learn more about vaccines for lung cancer.

Small Molecule Drugs for Lung Cancer

Over 60 percent of lung cancer cases are caused by six different genetic mutations. Many of the mutations can be treated with targeted therapies known as small molecule drugs. The FDA has approved several small molecule drugs as targeted treatment for lung cancer.

7. Targeted Therapy for KRAS Mutations

Around 30 percent of NSCLC cases have KRAS gene mutations. KRAS is a protein that plays a role in cell growth and division.

In 2021, the FDA approved sotorasib (Lumakras) as the first treatment for people with NSCLC who have KRAS G12C mutations. It’s given to people who have tried at least one other treatment. This was an exciting advancement because scientists used to think KRAS mutations were untreatable with targeted therapies.

The FDA also approved adagrasib (Krazati) in 2022 for people with stage 3 or 4 NSCLC who have KRAS G12C mutations. Adagrasib is given after you’ve tried at least one other therapy.

8. TKIs for ALK Mutations

Scientists have developed drugs known as tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs). They block proteins that send growth signals in lung cancer cells. Without the proper signals, the cancer cells die, and tumors shrink.

ALK mutations are found in 3 percent of NSCLC cases. There are now several ALK inhibitors available for treating lung cancer. In 2021, the FDA approved lorlatinib (Lorbena) as a first-line treatment for people with ALK-positive NSCLC.

In 2024, the FDA approved alectinib (Alecensa) to treat ALK-positive NSCLC along with surgery to remove the tumor.

Read more about specific medications in this list of treatments for lung cancer.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On MyLungCancerTeam — the social network for people with lung cancer and their loved ones — more than 12,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lung cancer.

Have you taken a new therapy to treat your lung cancer? Have you participated in a clinical trial studying a new advancement? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on June 5, 2024
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    Madison Saxton, PharmD obtained her Doctor of Pharmacy from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM) in Bradenton, Florida. Learn more about her here.
    Emily Wagner, M.S. holds a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology. She is passionate about immunology, cancer biology, and molecular biology. Learn more about her here.

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