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Dr West

Is immunotherapy the wrong choice for some lung cancer patients?

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Amidst all of the glowing reports about immunotherapy for lung and many other cancers, it would be understandable for patients and physicians to be tempted to rush toward prioritizing immunotherapy as the first treatment strategy to pursue. In fact, a highly publicized trial called KEYNOTE-024 was just presented at the ESMO meeting in Copenhagen and demonstrated a significant improvement in progression-free and overall survival over standard chemotherapy doublet treatment as the first line approach for patients with high level expression of the PD-L1 protein on their tumor (about 30% of patients).  But there is also converging evidence that some patients are consistently less likely to benefit from immunotherapy — specifically, those patients with an EGFR mutation and perhaps others with another “driver mutation” such as an ALK or ROS1 rearrangement.  This is an important issue to know, because I and some other lung cancer specialist colleagues see patients with one of these highly targetable lesions sometimes being mistakenly recommended immunotherapy over the optimal targeted therapy for their cancer, or patients deflect a recommendation for an EGFR or ALK inhibitor in favor of immunotherapy based largely or completely on the hype around the latest new idea in cancer treatment.

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Dr West

Death by “Pseudo-progression”: Knowing When to Cut Your Losses with Immunotherapy

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Among the many novel concepts in managing immunotherapy is the potential for “pseudo-progression”. This unusual phenomenon is when a patient’s scans of the areas of cancer actually appear worse on early imaging, potentially even with new lesions, after starting immunotherapy, but a patient’s scans later show shrinkage of the cancer.  These patients typically feel well, often with improvement in their cancer-related symptoms (fatigue, appetite, etc.) that don’t seem to be concordant with their worse-appearing scans.

Why might this happen? Some biopsies of lesions that have grown or appeared as new in such patients help explain that the growth is from infiltration of immune cells around tumor cells, preceding the time when those tumor cells are attacked and eradicated by the immune system.  In cases where new nodules appear that then resolve with later scans, it is felt that this situation represents immune cells infiltrating a “micro-nodule” of cancer that wasn’t visible until it was surrounded by immune cells that then enlarged it enough to become newly detectable on scans.

Pseudoprogression West JAMA Oncol 2015

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Dr West

OAK trial with Tecentriq (atezolizumab) is positive: How a “me too” result may change the landscape in advanced NSCLC

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With positive trials of two immune checkpoint inhibitors, Opdivo (nivolumab) and Keytruda (pembrolizumab), in second line NSCLC and compared with Taxotere (docetaxel), it should come as a surprise to nobody that another checkpoint inhibitor, Tecentriq (atezolizumab) has also proven superior to Taxotere in the OAK trial of previously treated NSCLC patients, as reported in a press release today.  Perhaps the biggest surprise is that this result actually has the potential to shake up the field even with Tecentriq as a late third entrant into the race.

The trial in question is called OAK, which is a very straightforward head to head phase III trial of Tecentriq, a PD-L1 inhibitor, vs. standard Taxotere in 1225 patients who had received one or two lines of prior chemotherapy and were not restricted by level of PD-L1 expression.

OAK trial image

This trial is very similar to trials with the PD-1 inhibitor Opdivo in patients with previously treated squamous NSCLC (Checkmate 017) and another with Opdivo in previously treated non-squamous NSCLC (Checkmate 057), without restriction by PD-L1 status. Both of those trials demonstrated a significant improvement in overall survival compared with Taxotere, leading to the approval of Opdivo in previously treated patients with advanced NSCLC, regardless of PD-L1 status.  In addition, the Keynote-010 trial of the PD-L1 inhibitor Keytruda vs. Taxotere also demonstrated a very similar survival benefit but was restricted to patients with PD-L1 expression.  At this time, the approval of Keytruda is only specifically for patients who test positive for PD-L1 with a threshold level of >50% expression, based on an earlier trial with Keytruda that demonstrated clearly greatest benefit in the much smaller minority of patients with high level PD-L1 expression using a 50% cutoff (about 28% of patients).

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GRACE Video

Immunotherapy Combinations

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GRACEcast-526_Lung_West_Immunotherapy_Combinations

 

Dr. Jack West, Swedish Cancer Institute, discusses current trials seeking to determine the efficacy of combining immunotherapy agents in lung cancer.

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The class of agents known as immune checkpoint inhibitors have really invigorated our study of lung cancer, and many other cancers over the last few years. Agents like Opdivo, also known as nivolumab, and Keytruda, known as pembrolizumab, are now commercially available, FDA approved as a second line therapy for patients who have progressed on first line standard chemotherapy. We are now actively asking the question of whether we might be able to move these immunotherapies into the first line setting and also asking whether we might do well by giving a combination of immune therapies, rather then just one treatment at a time.

So these agents, immune checkpoint inhibitors, are largely categorized into PD-1 or PD-L1 inhibitors, and those are just targeting two separate sides of an interaction between two receptors. The PD-L1 is on the tumor cells, PD-1 is on the immune T cells, and so blocking either side of this can lead to a beneficial effect because this effect leads to a braking mechanism on the immune system — you take away that braking system and you turn off the brakes and lead things to move forward, and that’s what we often see.

There are other agents that can also lead to braking mechanisms and that have been studied in other cancers. An agent such as Yervoy, which is known as ipilimumab is a CTLA-4 inhibitor and this is an agent that’s been approved in melanoma. In fact, the combination of Opdivo (nivolumab) and Yervoy (ipilimumab), as two different ways of blocking the immune system, have been shown to be beneficial as a combination in melanoma compared with either one on its own. Because of that, we’re looking at combinations of immunotherapies compared with single immunotherapy approaches, or standard chemotherapies.

One interesting study being done right now is called CheckMate 227 and it is looking at first line treatment of patients with advanced lung cancer that is either squamous or non-squamous histology. It does not require any level of PD-L1 expression on the tumors, the protein associated with tendency toward better efficacy of immunotherapies, partly with the thought that the combination of two immunotherapies may make even the cancers that don’t express PD-L1 respond well. This trial is looking at first line therapy with either standard chemotherapy of cisplatin or carboplatin with Alimta for non-squamous cancers, or Gemzar (gemcitabine) for squamous cancers, compared with either Opdivo alone or a combination of Opdivo and Yervoy — Opdivo being a PD-1 inhibitor, Yervoy being a CTLA-4 inhibitor — and asking the question of whether immunotherapy is as good, better, or worse than standard chemotherapy as a first line treatment, and whether the combination of two immunotherapies is better than first line therapy. 

I should mention that there are other trials looking at very similar versions of this question using different combinations of immunotherapies. There are many companies looking at several different immunotherapies in development and they are overall really very comparable and all quite exciting.

You can learn more about this specific trial from the link on the screen,

CheckMate 227 Clinical Trial

but I would encourage you, if you talk to your doctor and they recommend a trial with an immunotherapy in the first line setting, potentially comparing it to chemotherapy, to carefully consider it — it does not have to be this specific trial to be of interest.

We’re going to learn more about this in the coming years and we’re going to figure out the best way to integrate immunotherapies with our standard treatment approaches today.


GRACE Video

Immunotherapy as First-Line Treatment

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Dr. Jack West, Swedish Cancer Institute, raises the question of whether to use immune checkpoint inhibitors as first-line treatment of lung cancer, alone or in combination with chemotherapy.

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A class of agents known as immune checkpoint inhibitors has really incredibly invigorated the field of lung cancer and many other cancers over the last year or two. These agents are given intravenously and essentially take off a braking mechanism for the immune system and by doing that, can stimulate it to recognize and attack your own cancer. These agents, at least a couple of them, have been approved by the FDA as of now, in late 2015, and the question is whether they should be used earlier than the second line setting where they’ve already been approved.

Two agents, one known as Opdivo or nivolumab, and another known as Keytruda or pembrolizumab, are approved in patients who have already demonstrated progression after receiving a first line chemotherapy. So the question is: should these treatments be given earlier in therapy? There are two leading considerations in how we might do this. One is that we might give an immunotherapy in combination with standard chemotherapy. There are other ways to do this that might give the immunotherapy instead of standard chemotherapy. There are studies looking at various combinations being done with any of the many immune checkpoint inhibitors that are in development right now.

An interesting trial that is being done now is with pembrolizumab, or Keytruda — this is the KEYNOTE-189 trial that is looking at whether the addition of Keytruda to standard chemotherapy improves outcomes for patients when they get it first line. Specifically this trial is for patients with a non-squamous cancer and these patients can have any level of PD-L1 expression, the protein that tends to be associated with better activity of the immune checkpoint inhibitors — there’s no restriction on PD-L1 expression and patients just have to have not received prior therapy for advanced lung cancer. These patients are then randomized to receive the two drug chemotherapy combination of cisplatin or carboplatin with Alimta, or that same chemotherapy combination with Keytruda (pembrolizumab). That study is being done now and we hope to learn more about it in the next year or two, to learn whether it is beneficial to give these immunotherapy agents in combination with chemotherapy, compared to giving them sequentially.

Another very similar study, though looking at squamous lung cancer, is called EMPOWER 131 — this is with an immune checkpoint inhibitor known as atezolizumab. This agent is being looked at in combination with either carboplatin and Taxol, or carboplatin and Abraxane, a very similar agent. There are two arms of this study where a patient gets a combination of chemotherapy and the immune therapy, and the third arm is just carboplatin and Abraxane alone. We should learn more about the potential benefits of combining immune checkpoint inhibitors with chemotherapy in the first line setting from this, looking at both patients with squamous and non-squamous histology in different trials.


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