Immunotherapy in South Korea

Immunotherapy in South Korea

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a new era in the oncology treatment! This therapy is the youngest of all, but it is giving high hopes for oncology patients. The first set of drugs were released in 2011-2013, and numerous studies and trials are still underway.

If we divide the generations of anti-cancer treatment, we can distinguish 3: chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immune therapy.

Unlike standard chemotherapy, which destroys both cancer cells and healthy ones, immunotherapy activates the body’s immune cells, which track and destroy only cancer cells. Unlike targeted therapy, immunotherapy can be used in oncology without any gene mutations, that is, the application area is much wider.

Since the therapy uses the host own immune system in tracking and destroying cancer cells, the side effects are small, the effect of therapy is long and life expectancy has increased.

What types of immunotherapy exist?

What is immunotherapy
  • Immune checkpoints: checkpoints deter our immune system from uncontrolled cell destruction, including healthy ones. Cancer cells use these points and hide from the immune system. In such cases, the inhibitors disable the immune system’s containment so that it can continue to function.
  • Immune therapy with stem cells: immune cells are taken out, in laboratory conditions they strengthen their cellular immunity or are genetically altered, and then reintroduced into the body. Infiltration tumors lymphocytes, T-cell receptors, chimeric antigen receptors, etc. can be used.
  • Anti-cancer vaccines: A tumor specific antigen (tumor marker) is injected into the patient’s body, which activates the immune system and helps to find and destroy cancer cells with the same marker.
  • Monoclonal antibodies: the laboratory combines antibodies with drugs and is injected into the patient’s body. Antibodies can “mark” cells to track their immune system, or carry toxic matter to malignant cells and destroy them.

Immunotherapy drugs and their use in South Korea

At the moment, immunotherapy is the most advanced method in the treatment of cancer in the world. Below are the drugs that are used to treat oncology in Korea.

Keytruda (Pembrolizumab)

Keytruda (Pembrolizumab) was approved in Korea in 2015 as a drug to treat metastatic melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, metastatic stomach cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the moment, additional permits for the treatment of head and neck cancer and kidney cancer have been obtained.

As of March 2020, it is used in the treatment of metastatic melanoma, urothelial carcinoma, non-small cell lung cancer, kidney cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, small cell lung cancer, breast cancer, squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, progressive stomach cancer. Since April 2020, the drug is allowed in Korea in the treatment of oesophageal cancer (inoperable, common or metastatic).

Tecentriq (atezolizumab) is the first of the immunotherapy drugs to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Korea Food and Drug Administration as a Level 1 drug in the treatment of advanced lung cancer. As you know, this type of lung cancer is aggressive with rapid metastasis and poor prediction. For patients with this diagnosis there is real hope! Also used in the treatment of localized or metastatic urothelial carcinoma, non-small cell lung cancer, triple-negative breast cancer.

Imfinzi (Durvalumab) has been registered as a drug to treat patients with inoperable non-small cell lung cancer. As of June 18, 2020, the drug was approved as a Level 1 treatment for small cell cancer.

Bavencio (Avelumab) is the fifth drug approved in Korea to treat a rare and aggressive carcinoma, Merkel’s cells with metastases.

At the moment, plenty of drugs are in numerous trials to treat other cancers. In the future, the list of diseases to which it is possible to apply certain drugs of immune therapy will keep growing.

More and more advanced methods and drugs are also being developed to treat oncology and other diseases for both adults and children.

FAQ about immunotherapy in South Korea

How is immunotherapy administrated?

Doctor should prescribe the treatment according to the result of examinations and the patient’s condition. Immunotherapy is given intravenously. Sometimes other drugs are used in conjunction with standard chemotherapy / radiotherapy. Usually, the treatment takes place as an outpatient (no need for hospitalization) if the patient’s condition permits and the doctor allows it.

Are there any side effects for immunotherapy?

Yes, there are side effects, but less than from standard chemotherapy. The side effect is associated with the response of the immune system to the drug. Fatigue, cough, rash, pain may appear. Rarely, reaction in organs can occur, therefore, if is important to carefully monitor the patient’s condition. Doctors should monitor the reaction of the body and prescribe symptomatic therapy if necessary.

Is immunotherapy for everyone?

Immunotherapy drugs have received approval only for the treatment of certain types of diseases, but the list is constantly updated. The decision comes from the doctor according to the diagnosis, results and patient’s medical history.

How much does one immunotherapy session cost in Korea?

The cost varies according to the drug and dosage, but cost start at $3,000 USD per session and up. The number of sessions and the frequency of courses come from the oncologist’s decisions.

Why is immunotherapy so expensive in Korea?

This therapy is a new method for oncology treatment. Expensive research and complex manufacturing processes are the main reason for the high cost. When drugs enter mass use, they will have to become more affordable. At the moment, all drugs are manufactured and imported from the USA, Japan and European countries.

The type of radiotherapy, the number of sessions, the cost will depend on the diagnosis, the results of examinations, the condition of patients and other factors. Please understand that this information is just for researching purposes and it is not intended as medical advice. Before taking any decision consult with your doctor.


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