Clinical Insights

Steroid-refractory pneumonitis from ICIs: Experience at major centers


Pneumonitis is an uncommon and potentially life-threatening complication of immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI) therapy. A fraction of patients with ICI-related pneumonitis fail to respond to initial therapy with high-dose systemic steroids.

Dr. Alan P. Lyss, now retired, was a community-based medical oncologist and clinical researcher for more than 35 years, practicing in St. Louis.

Dr. Alan P. Lyss

The recently published experiences at two major cancer centers shed light on the outcomes from treatment and can provide some advice to clinicians for dealing with affected patients.

The Johns Hopkins experience

Because ICI-related pneumonitis typically improves within 48-72 hours of steroid therapy, at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, steroid-refractory pneumonitis is defined as pneumonitis that demonstrates no clinical improvement after high-dose corticosteroids for 2-14 days. If the immune toxicity–specialized, multidisciplinary management team implements additional immunosuppressive therapy, that is regarded as confirmatory evidence.

Aanika Balaji, a medical student at Johns Hopkins University, and colleagues retrospectively summarized the clinical course of 12 patients with ICI-related pneumonitis between 2011 and 2020. Clinical improvement with subsequent treatment was evidenced by reduction in either level of care or oxygen requirements.

Three-quarters of the patients were current or former smokers, and the same proportion had lung cancer. Most patients (91.6%) had received chemotherapy, 58.3% had prior chest radiotherapy, and 58.3% had achieved partial response or stable disease with an ICI.

Steroid-refractory ICI-related pneumonitis developed between 40 and 127 days (median, 85 days) after the first dose of ICI therapy. Subsequent immunosuppressive management included IVIg, infliximab, or the combination, in addition to ICU-level supportive care.

Among the seven patients who received IVIg alone, two patients (29%) achieved clinical improvement and hospital discharge. The remainder died.

The two patients treated with infliximab and the three patients treated with sequential IVIg and infliximab died. All deaths were attributed to ICI-related pneumonitis or infectious complications.

Overall, clinically relevant findings were:

  • Steroid-refractory ICI-related pneumonitis was seen in 18.5% of patients referred for multidisciplinary care.
  • Steroid-refractory ICI-related pneumonitis occurred at a median of 85 days into a patient’s ICI treatment.
  • Some patients improved clinically after IVIg therapy, but mortality was high overall.
  • Infliximab therapy, alone or in combination with IVIg, was ineffective.

The Memorial Sloan Kettering experience

Jason Beattie, MD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, and colleagues performed a retrospective study of patients who had pneumonitis after ICI therapy and/or received immune modulator therapy after corticosteroids in the setting of ICI cancer treatment.

Manual record review was performed to exclude cases of pneumonitis from other causes. The period reviewed was roughly contemporaneous with the Johns Hopkins series.

Patients with ICI-related pneumonitis were divided into “steroid refractory” (i.e., no response to high-dose corticosteroids) or “steroid resistant” (i.e., initial response, followed by worsening) categories.

The researchers identified 26 patients with ICI-related pneumonitis, all of whom had advanced malignancy (8 lung cancer, 4 malignant melanoma, 4 renal cell cancer, and 10 “other” cancers).

A majority of patients (85%) were current or former smokers, 73% had received ICI monotherapy, 35% had received prior chest radiation at a median interval of 4.9 months prior to pneumonitis onset, and 27% had preexisting pulmonary disease.

Twelve patients (46%) had steroid-refractory ICI-related pneumonitis, and 14 (54%) had steroid-resistant ICI-related pneumonitis.

The two groups differed in time to pneumonitis onset (a median of 68 days in the refractory group and 182 days in the resistant group) and time to immune modulator therapy after beginning steroids (median 7 days and 2.9 months, respectively). In the steroid-refractory cases, pneumonitis was more severe.

In addition to corticosteroids, most patients received infliximab monotherapy or infliximab with mycophenolate mofetil. In contrast to the Johns Hopkins series, IVIg was not used in the Memorial Sloan Kettering cases.

Outcomes from immune modulators were graded based on clinical evidence (progress notes, oxygen requirements, level of care, radiologic information, etc.) of resolution of pneumonitis on imaging at least 8 weeks after cessation of steroids and immune modulator therapy, durable improvement for at least 8 weeks after immune modulator therapy, transient improvement followed by pneumonitis relapse or inadequate follow-up because of death or hospice referral, or no improvement.

Ten patients (38%) had durable improvement of ICI-related pneumonitis, of whom three (12%) had complete resolution. Two of the patients with complete resolution had steroid-refractory pneumonitis, both of whom had received infliximab followed by mycophenolate mofetil.

Among the seven patients with durable improvement, four remained alive on immune modulators. Time to resolution of pneumonitis was protracted, ranging from 2.3 months to 8.4 months in the steroid-refractory patients.

Durable response was less common with steroid-refractory (25%) than steroid-resistant (50%) disease, with a significant difference in 90-day survival of 25% and 71%, respectively.

Among the 13 (50%) patients with transient improvement in ICI-related pneumonitis, 8 ultimately died, either because of recurrent ICI-related pneumonitis or infection. All three patients with no improvement from immune modulators died.

The 90-day all-cause mortality was 50%, with durable pneumonitis improvement and freedom from severe infectious complications occurring in only about a third of patients.


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