The role of immunotherapy in NSCLC to expand



SAN DIEGO – Expect an expanded role of immunotherapy in patients with non–small cell lung cancer, Dr. Roy S. Herbst predicted at the Joint Conference on the Molecular Origins of Lung Cancer sponsored by the American Association for Cancer Research and the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer.

Dr. Herbst, professor of medical oncology at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., characterized immunotherapy as "probably the most exciting new and specific therapies we have for NSCLC. The extent in its response is impressive, and this is a therapy that has memory. The adaptability of immunotherapy is important as well."

Dr. Roy S. Herbst

He advised researchers and clinicians to consider using immunotherapy that includes CTLA-4 antibodies, PD-1 antibodies, and PD-L1 antibodies alone or together in patients with earlier stages of lung disease. Clinical studies of immunotherapy in NSCLC patients suggest that some patients don’t get better with immunotherapy, "but a lot of patients do," said Dr. Herbst. "We want to figure out who those patients are. When we see activity like this, we think, can we bring this therapy to earlier disease? These agents might have a role in maintenance therapy and adjuvant/neoadjuvant therapy. Of course, we worry about side effects such as pneumonitis, which occurs rarely, but we still hope these agents will have a benefit in the adjuvant setting. The biology speaks to that. But what about using these agents as maintenance therapy? I think that needs to be explored."

Using immunotherapy as frontline treatment in patients with stage IV lung cancer is also feasible, he said. "I’d feel much better about it if we had a marker, but we should think about some single-agent trials," he said. "Other possibilities in stage IV disease include using immunotherapy with chemotherapy and with tyrosine kinase inhibitors."

Immunotherapy-related adverse events are "not overwhelming, but they’re different than what we see with chemotherapy," Dr. Herbst continued. "For example, some of the endocrine events are not something we often see. We are working on ways to manage this."

Use of biomarkers and immune monitoring can also help clinicians gauge the efficacy of immunotherapy in their NSCLC patients. Dr. Herbst and his associates at Yale Cancer Center follow these patients with biopsies at baseline, during therapy, and at the end of therapy, "because after their therapy at 1 year or more, you wonder: Is this active tumor? Or is this necrotic tissue?" he said. "We now have ways to figure out who is responding and why they’re responding."

Another trend in the future of immunotherapy involves combining with other agents that address key mechanisms in positive and negative regulation of the immune system. Dr. Herbst explained that the biological goal of combinations with a checkpoint inhibitor include the ability to induce antigen-specific T cells, provide more antigen-presenting cells (APCs), activation/modulation of APCs, drive T-cell expansion to expand the pool of antigen-specific cells, and remove other regulatory checkpoints/suppressive factors for T-cell activation/expansion in periphery.

"The current challenge is to identify the critical deficiencies in individual patients," he said. "We have to continue to investigate the biologic significance of all potential ligand-receptor interactions in the tumor microenvironment."

Dr. Herbst disclosed that he is on the scientific advisory boards of Biothera, Diatech, Kolltan, N of 1, Novarx, and Quintiles. He also has done consulting for Ariad, Astellas, and other companies.

This article was updated March 25, 2014.

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