Bile duct cancer, or cholangiocarcinoma, begins when cancerous cells grow and spread within the bile ducts. Some people with this cancer may benefit from a treatment known as immunotherapy.

The bile ducts are tubes that transport bile between the gallbladder, liver, and small intestine. Bile duct cancer can affect bile ducts both inside and outside of the liver.

This article discusses treating bile duct cancer with immunotherapy. It also looks at what happens during immunotherapy, other treatments for bile duct cancer, and more.

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Historically, the most common treatments for bile duct cancer have included radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy. New research shows that immunotherapy can also help treat this form of cancer. This treatment uses an individual’s immune system to fight cancer.

Immunotherapy involves using the immune system to attack cancer cells. This may occur by enhancing the immune system’s natural functions. It may also involve designing artificial parts of the immune system to fight cancer.

For example, one method for treating bile duct cancer uses chimeric antigen receptor-T (CAR-T) cells to help improve the production of T cells, a type of immune cell.

First, medical professionals collect T cells from an individual’s blood. Next, they send these cells to a laboratory for processing. Laboratory workers re-engineer these cells to target and attack bile duct cancer cells.

Research shows that CAR-T cells can be effective in treating bile duct cancer.

Other forms of immunotherapy for this cancer may include:

  • bispecific antibodies
  • cancer vaccines
  • oncolytic viruses
  • checkpoint inhibitors

Different forms of immunotherapy may work better for certain individuals. A doctor can provide a person with more information about individualized treatment plans.

Learn more about how immunotherapy works.

Some people with bile duct cancer may experience a recurrence of the condition after standard treatment. Researchers estimate that this occurs in 50% of individuals who have surgery for bile duct cancer. Similarly, using only one type of treatment, such as chemotherapy, may be ineffective.

Doctors might recommend immunotherapy if other treatments do not help. They may also need immunotherapy if they are not eligible for these other treatment options.

Research shows that immunotherapy combined with chemotherapy can be effective for bile duct cancer. In a 2018 case study, researchers examined this treatment in an individual whose bile duct cancer had recurred after surgery. This individual responded well to the combination treatment.

Through genetic testing, scientists can also identify cancer genes for each individual. This may help them determine whether someone might need immunotherapy for bile duct cancer.

The immunotherapy process may vary between individuals. For those receiving a cancer vaccine, immunotherapy may only involve an injection.

For individuals receiving CAR-T therapy, the process involves collecting T cells, sending them to the laboratory, and re-injecting the modified cells.

Other types of immunotherapy may involve taking medications for a set time. These forms of immunotherapy may include checkpoint inhibitors or immunomodulatory.

A doctor can advise a person on what their immunotherapy treatment involves and what they can expect during the treatment.

There are many different forms of immunotherapy for bile duct cancer. Preparing for immunotherapy depends on both the individual and the type of treatment.

Recent studies have found that following certain diets can help improve immunotherapy response. One study shows that probiotics can boost the effectiveness of checkpoint inhibitor treatment. Another study found that dietary fiber may also enhance immunotherapy.

Individuals getting ready for immunotherapy should contact a doctor for specific advice about preparing for immunotherapy. They can advise on any dietary recommendations or other steps a person should take before treatment.

The length of immunotherapy treatment varies between treatment options. Individuals taking checkpoint inhibitors may continue treatment for several months. Combining chemotherapy with immunotherapy may also take place over several months.

The timeline for CAR-T therapy depends on how quickly the CAR-T cells are available. It takes around 4–5 hours to collect T cells, and modifying these cells can take several weeks. People who receive CAR-T therapy may need to stay in a hospital for up to 2 weeks after treatment so that doctors and nurses can monitor them.

Individuals who have immunotherapy can experience a range of side effects. These may include:

  • pain or swelling around an injection site
  • a fever
  • nausea
  • tiredness
  • dizziness
  • infection
  • weight gain from fluid retention
  • organ inflammation

Anyone experiencing new or worsening immunotherapy side effects should contact a doctor. Certain side effects may be mild, but others may become serious without proper medical care.

Other bile duct cancer treatments may include:

Choosing the right therapy depends on the individual and the stage of their condition. A person should contact a doctor to learn more about treatment options.

Bile duct cancer involves the growth of cancerous cells in the bile ducts. Treatments for the condition range from surgery to chemotherapy and radiation. Immunotherapy can also help treat bile duct cancer in some people.

Immunotherapy works by using an individual’s immune system to fight cancer cells. There are a number of different forms of therapy. Vaccines, checkpoint inhibitors, and CAR-T cells are all immunotherapy options for bile duct cancer.

Individuals interested in immunotherapy should consult with a medical professional. A doctor can recommend which treatment option may be most effective based on the person’s circumstances.