Checkpoint inhibitors, a type of immunotherapy drug, help spur the immune system to kill cancer cells. These drugs can be effective treatments for some patients who otherwise would have few options.

Beginning in 2011, with the approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of the first checkpoint inhibitor, seven of these immunotherapy drugs have come onto the market for treatment of various cancer types.

Enthusiasm for these drugs is widespread, including among elderly patients with advanced cancer. Now, some frail elderly patients who might previously have opted out of chemotherapy are choosing immunotherapy in hopes of achieving a long-term response.

But data on immunotherapy side effects and outcomes are more limited in elderly people than in younger patients. Some doctors worry that all the excitement surrounding checkpoint inhibitors is preventing older patients from getting palliative and hospice care that could be more likely to improve their lives.

Rawad Elias, an oncologist at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, studies immunotherapy in older patients and presented on the topic at the American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting in Chicago in June 2019. Cancer Today spoke with Elias about the benefits and risks of checkpoint inhibitors and how their availability may affect treatment decisions for older patients.

Q: Are there common misconceptions among patients and families about checkpoint inhibitors?
A: We’re very excited about [immunotherapy] because it’s an option now other than chemotherapy, [but] it doesn’t work in all cancers. Even in the cancer[s] that it works for, it doesn’t work in all patients. And most patients, in fact, do not respond to checkpoint inhibitors.

We often see patients who … ask us, “OK. How about immunotherapy?” And we’ll have to explain that, unfortunately, in your type of cancer, it doesn’t even work.

Q: What do we know about the efficacy of checkpoint inhibitors in older patients?
A: Unfortunately, older adults are underrepresented in clinical trials. Older adults constitute about 60% of cancer patients, and [in] the clinical trials of checkpoint inhibitors, they [made up] about 40% [of participants]. Also, patients who are enrolled on clinical trials are usually the … fit people with [few] medical complications. So we don’t really understand the clinical profile of these drugs in the real-world population.

We did some work in the past looking … if the efficacy of the checkpoint inhibitors is similar across age groups. We published that in the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer based on [an] age cutoff of 65. The efficacy of checkpoint inhibitors was considerable in younger and older adults. What we don’t know about, though, is what’s the impact of frailty on these medications? And does that make patients more prone to toxicity? Does it make the efficacy of the drug less?

Q: What are the special considerations older patients need to take into account when considering checkpoint inhibitor therapy?
A: What we don’t know about … is the impact of low-grade toxicity or any toxicity on older adults. We tend to call things like fatigue or a little bit of nausea “low-grade” toxicity, but we don’t know the impact of this low-grade toxicity on an 80-year-old person who already has trouble getting out of the house.

When it comes to older patients with an advanced cancer, this is a really critical thing to discuss: What’s your quality of life during this period of time, and what matters most to you as a person? The goal is not to go and treat the cancer. The goal is to treat you as a person. And it’s only you as a patient who gets to determine: What does that mean?

For example, [one of my patients], even though therapy could have been an option for her, she’s a frail older adult. We talked about [the fact that] the impact of treating her with immunotherapy would be potentially more fatigue and coming to the doctor’s office [more frequently]—coming in once every two weeks or once every four weeks … getting bloodwork, waiting in the waiting room to see the doctor and then getting the infusion, then going back home, then coming back again. So the question is: Does that make sense to you? My patient … decided that doesn’t make sense to her based on what we think … [immunotherapy] is going to achieve.

Q: Why are some people concerned that the increasing popularity of checkpoint inhibitors could hinder access to palliative and end-of-life care?
A: Unfortunately, when we’re treating cancer patients, we’re treating a very hard disease and even small things get us excited. In the hype or the excitement about checkpoint inhibitors, many may skip that conversation [about risks and alternatives like palliative care] and go straight to, “Let’s start you on checkpoint inhibitors and see what happens.” And what’s happening in most patients is that they do not respond, and we forget about palliative care which we know, for sure, makes people have a better quality of life, keeps them outside the hospital, keeps them at home. This is not to say older adults should not be treated, but to say that there are concerns about these drugs. They do not work for everyone.​ ​​

Emma Yasinski​ is a Florida-based freelance science and medical journalist.​