Immunotherapy for Lynch Syndrome

March 3, 2024

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Lynch syndrome, previously called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), is a genetic condition that causes increased risk of various cancers. Research shows promise for immunotherapy to treat tumors linked to Lynch syndrome. This article provides an overview of immunotherapy, its effectiveness for Lynch syndrome, who may benefit, side effects, and more. Those undergoing genetic screening should consult their healthcare team to discuss personalized prevention and treatment options.


Understanding Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy helps the body’s natural defenses fight disease, including cancer. It marks malignant cells so immune cells spot and eliminate them more easily. It also stimulates immune cells or alters signals cancers use to hide. Types include:

What is Immunotherapy?

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors: These drugs block proteins that act as “brakes” on immune responses. This allows stronger attacks against tumors.
  • Cancer vaccines: These boost immune activity against specific targets commonly found in cancer cells.
  • Adoptive cell transfer: Cells are removed, changed to recognize cancer, and put back into the patient.
  • Monoclonal antibodies: Lab-made immune proteins bind to targets on cancer cells, flagging them for destruction.

How Can Immunotherapy Be Used for Lynch Syndrome?

Those with Lynch syndrome often develop mismatch repair (MMR) gene mutations, causing high microsatellite instability (MSI-H). Research shows MSI-H tumors provoke immune responses, making immunotherapy a promising approach.

The main strategies researchers study involve PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitor drugs like pembrolizumab and nivolumab. These target malfunctioning signaling between immune T cells and cancer cells to enhance immune attack efficiency. Trials assess optimal usage for Lynch syndrome patients.


Effectiveness of Immunotherapy for Lynch Syndrome

Early trials demonstrate immunotherapy, especially single-agent PD-1 blocking, helps treat various tumors linked to Lynch syndrome, including colorectal, endometrial, and gastric cancers.

Reported responses include:

  • Tumor shrinkage for measurable disease
  • No evident growth in tested lesions
  • Symptom relief through cancer control

Response rates vary based on individual disease and treatment history factors. Younger Lynch syndrome patients may see better outcomes. Combining immunotherapy with other drugs is also being tested to extend remissions further.

“We’re still early, but checkpoint inhibitors look tremendously promising for this patient population,” says Dr. Luis Diaz, head of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Solid Tumor Oncology division.

Side Effects and Risks

Immunotherapy often causes fewer aggressive side effects than chemotherapy but may trigger inflammatory responses and immune system overactivation.

Common reactions include fatigue, nausea, decreased appetite, skin changes, and respiratory symptoms like pneumonitis. These usually stay mild with standard care.

Rarer issues involve inflammation within vital organs severely enough to require hospitalization. These immune-driven reactions are unpredictable but often manageable if caught early.

“We monitor closely, but in general the safety profile makes immunotherapy a reasonable choice for appropriate Lynch syndrome patients,” says Dr. Hanna Sanoff of the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.


Who is a Good Candidate?

Doctors weigh numerous factors when assessing if immunotherapy aligns with an individual’s Lynch syndrome profile and treatment goals:

  • Cancer stage and previous therapies: Earlier stage tumors have other options with proven cure potential. However, advanced cancers that resist treatments like chemotherapy may benefit.
  • MMR gene status: Clinical correlation between specific genetic mutations and immunotherapy response remains an active research question.
  • Goals: The aim may be curing early stage disease, extending life for advanced cancers, or relief from debilitating symptoms.
  • Health history: Age, medications, and other conditions that interact with immune pathways influence safety.

Regular discussions with your care team allow tailoring immunotherapy use if deemed appropriate.

“It’s very much an ongoing personalized assessment,” notes Dr. Sanoff.


  • Research suggests immunotherapy has considerable promise treating Lynch syndrome-associated tumor types, especially where chemotherapy fails. Younger patients may see better results.
  • Combining immunotherapy with other agents aims to extend responses further. Identifying specific genetic and immunologic biomarkers to optimize patient selection remains a key focus.
  • As with any cancer treatment, balancing safety and quality of life is vital. Doctors stress managing side effects when they occur.
  • Overall, advances in immunotherapy propel new possibilities for controlling challenging Lynch syndrome cancers. Patients should consult care teams versed in both genetic syndromes and cancer immunotherapy to navigate choices.

Frequently Asked Questions

What types of immunotherapy are used for Lynch syndrome?

Checkpoint inhibitor drugs like pembrolizumab and nivolumab make up most immunotherapy for Lynch syndrome currently. Combinations or cancer vaccines are also being researched.

How effective is immunotherapy for Lynch syndrome patients?

Early trial response rates vary, but many show tumor shrinkage or stability. Younger patients tend to respond better. More research on genetic and immunologic predictive factors is underway.

What are risks and side effects of immunotherapy for Lynch syndrome?

Like other cancers, fatigue, nausea, appetite changes and organ inflammation may occur but are usually manageable. Doctors monitor closely, especially for rarer side effects.

Who is a good candidate for immunotherapy?

Those with advanced, chemotherapy-resistant Lynch syndrome cancers who tolerate potential side effects well are often good candidates. Doctors do extensive evaluations of each individual’s case.

Could immunotherapy cure Lynch syndrome?

While early immunotherapy trials show promise, most experts avoid calling any cancer treatment a definitive “cure” right now. More evidence is still needed.

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