Targeted Programmed Cell Death in Lung Cancer Treatment
Published Online: March 19, 2014
Marj P. Zimmerman, MS, BSPharm, and Stanton R. Mehr
Despite new and improved therapies, lung cancer remains the second most common type of cancer in men and women (not including skin cancer), and is the leading cause of cancer-related death for both men and women (Table 1).1 The 5-year survival rate for all stages is 16.3%, which is lower than many other types of cancer. Most patients are not diagnosed in the early stages of the disease, so more than half the patients die within 1 year of being diagnosed.2 In 2010, an estimated $12.1 billion was spent on treating lung cancer.3 However, research is ongoing to uncover and better understand potential treatments for lung cancer.
Recently, immunotherapeutic approaches involving the body’s T-cell immune system were effectively implemented in lung cancer therapy. T-cell activity is regulated by a balance of costimulatory and inhibitory signals, known as checkpoints. The body’s self-regulation through these checkpoints enables it to respond to infections and prevent tumor progression, as well as to prevent autoimmune-type responses.4
Ipilimumab, which has been approved for use in patients with advanced melanoma, is known to have antitumor activity mediated via T cells.5 Knowing that T-cell function is suppressed in lung cancer, researchers explored the effectiveness of ipilimumab for treating lung cancer. Early trials have indicated that this immune checkpoint inhibitor, administered in combination with chemotherapy, can improve progression-free survival (PFS) in patients with advanced lung cancer.6
Another key checkpoint pathway that is mediated via T cells is the programmed death-1 (PD-1) pathway. Together with its ligands PD-L1 and PD-L2, the PD-1 receptor, a doorway through which T cells either recognize and attack tumor cells normally or diation treatment), pointing to a need if the pathway is inhibited, allow tumor cells to foil the immunotherapeutic system and grow unrecognized and without sparking a natural T-cell reaction. What makes this such a promising area is the fact that many solid tumor types express PD-L1. In fact, PD-L1 expression is often associated with a worse prognosis, because it is a sign that the patients’ own immune system is likely not helping to combat tumor growth. However, recent research efforts indicate that by blocking the PD-L1 ligands, the body’s T cells can be forced to recognize tumor cells, and the natural programmed cell death mechanism can then take over.7
Research has found that blocking the PD-1 pathway inhibits binding to both PD-L1 and PD-L2 ligands. There is potential to selectively block the PD-L1 receptor, which affects the CD80 pathway that is necessary for T-cell activation and survival.4,7 The more specific targeting is preferable, as studies have indicated that targeting PD-L1 may lead to fewer toxicities (including pneumonitis) than targeting the overall PD-1 pathway.7,8
Several PD-1 and PD-L1 agents are currently being tested in clinical trials. Since several tumor types express these targets, the early investigational studies involve multiple solid tumor types. Once a drug candidate demonstrates PD-1 pathway activity, the clinical trials tend to home in on specific tumor types. Ongoing studies should indicate whether anti-tumor activity is greatest with the PD-1 targeted agents versus those targeting PD-L1 alone.
PD-1 Targeted Agents in Development
Nivolumab. Nivolumab, a fully human IgG4-PD-1 immune checkpoint inhibitor, is currently in phase III trials. Nivolumab binds to the PD-1 receptors expressed on activated T-cells, which in turn inhibits the binding of PD-1 to both PD-L1 and PD-L2 ligands.9
Results of an expanded nonrandomized controlled phase I trial were pre-sented at the World Conference on Lung Cancer in October 2013.10 A total of 129 patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) who had been previously treated (74 with non-squamous cell cancer, 54 with squamous cell cancer, and 1 with unknown histology) were given an intravenous infusion of nivolumab every 2 weeks for 4 doses in an 8-week treatment cycle. Treatment with 1, 3, or 10 mg/kg was administered for a maximum of 12 cycles or until patients had a complete response (CR), unacceptable toxicity, progressive disease (PD), or withdrew consent.
Patients were not tested for PD-L1-receptor expression. Twenty-two patients (17%) had either a complete response or partial response (PR), as measured by the Response Evaluation Criteria in Solid Tumors (RECIST) criteria. The highest objective response rate (ORR; ORR = CR + PR) was seen with the 3 mg/kg dose across all of the NSCLC disease types. There was no differentiation with regard to response based on tumor cell type. Of the patients responding to therapy, 50% (11/22) saw improvement at 8 weeks. The median overall survival (OS) was 9.6 months across all doses and 14.9 month with the 3 mg/kg dose across tumor types. The 1-year OS rate was 42%, while the 2-year OS was 14%.
Adverse events of any grade were observed in 41% (53/129) of the patients, with the most common relating to dermatologic (16%), gastrointestinal (12%), and pulmonary (7%) problems. Grade 3 or 4 adverse advents were seen in 5% (6/129) of the patients; 3 patients (2%) had pneumonitis. Pneumonitis was the cause of 2 early deaths.10
Phase III clinical trials are in progress for nivolumab for NSCLC (both squamous cell and non–squamous cell), melanoma, and renal cell carcinoma. The drug is being investigated as monotherapy and in combination with other drugs used to treat cancer. In 1 phase I trial, nivolumab and ipilimumab are being administered in combination for the treatment of advanced stage NSCLC.
As of January 27, 2014, Bristol-Myers Squibb, the company developing the 2 molecules, did not have plans to initiate late-stage trials with this combination (nivolumab and ipilimumab) for treating NSCLC.11
Lambrolizumab. Mechanistically, lambrolizumab is similar to nivolumab. It differs only in that it is a humanized IgG4 rather than a fully human monoclonal antibody.4 Phase III trials are currently in progress with this drug. Interim data from a phase Ib expansion study were presented at the World Conference on Lung Cancer in October 2013. Patients with previously treated NSCLC were administered 10 mg/kg lambrolizumab via intravenous infusion every 3 weeks. PD-L1 expression was evaluated before the study was initiated, though it was not used to determine treatment. The ORR in the 38 patients diagnosed with squamous and non-squamous disease was 24%. Using RECIST criteria, the ORR was 21% (N = 9). Most of the responses were seen at the first planned assessment at week 9.
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