Potential of Immuno-Oncology Continues to Expand

Silas Inman @silasinman
Published: Saturday, Mar 19, 2016

Dr Madhav V. Dhodapkar

Madhav V. Dhodapkar, MBBS

Immuno-oncology has advanced rapidly, with the introduction of immune checkpoint inhibition and effective adoptive T-cell therapies. As these agents rush through development, several questions remain regarding the optimal patients for treatment and the next steps for further improving outcomes, according to Madhav V. Dhodapkar, MBBS, at the 2016 International Congress on Hematologic Malignancies.

“Things have changed in the past 5 years, to the extent that immuno-oncology has now become perhaps the fastest moving component of cancer therapeutics, and I would argue, hopefully a major component of cancer prevention, as we go along,” said Dhodapkar, Clinical Research Program Leader, Hematology Program, Yale Cancer Center.

There are several tumor properties that create therapeutic challenges, many of which can be addressed using immuno-oncology. Specifically, Dhodapkar explained, immunotherapy is an ideal therapy for cancer, since it can overcome the proliferative nature of the disease, it's genetic complexity, heterogeneity, and characteristics that a tumor shares with normal tissue.

“What you really need is an approach that has the ability to survive as long as the cancer cell does and has the ability to evolve with the cancer,” Dhodapkar said. “Essentially, the immune system provides all of these properties, which makes this a living drug, if you will, against multiple targets.”

There are several approaches to immuno-oncology, including vaccines against antigens, antibodies against specific targets, and the genetic modification of T-cells. At this point, successful immunotherapy approaches have focused almost exclusively on improving the priming and activation of the immune system and the direct killing of cancer cells; however, a number of other approaches can still be exploited.

Early in the carcinogenesis process, there is evidence that the immune system is capable of detecting premalignancies. This concept can be used to help prevent cancer, believes Dhodapkar. “If you try to manipulate the host response at an early stage, you can modify the evolution to the malignant state,” he said.

There are several targets available for immunotherapy, which can be utilized on an individual basis in each unique type of cancer. The main targets include mutation-derived neoantigens, viral antigens, and cancer stem cell associated antigens. This approach is ideal for tumors with high mutation burdens, like melanoma and other solid tumors, Dhodapkar believes.

New Targets Available for Immunotherapy

Neoantigens, which arise as a result of tumor-specific mutations, are one of the most attractive targets for immunotherapy, according to Dhodapkar. This approach became feasible with the sequencing of the genome, which revealed several mechanisms across types of cancer. A therapy against neoantigens has the benefit of being tumor specific, while capitalizing on preexisting high affinity T-cells and a lack of tolerance concerns.

“One of the advantages of targeting neoantigens is that you can target so-called 'non-druggable' mutations,” said Dhodapkar. “In an individual patient, we can create a vaccine, provide that vaccine with checkpoint blockade—or perhaps expand neoantigen T-cells ex vivo—and, all of these approaches are ongoing.”

Other targets include those involved in the maintenance of stemness in cancer cells. One such example is the stem cell transcription factor SOX2, Dhodapkar said. Similarly to the neoantigens, this approach allows access to traditionally “undruggable” targets.

Personalizing Treatment With Immunotherapy

A new treatment selection system may need to be considered that looks at T-cell activity, regardless of the type of tumor. For this, Dhodapkar proposed two groups of patients, based on their T-cell characteristics: one with low levels of T-cells and the other with high T-cell activity.

In the case of the T-cell poor tumors, a combined treatment approach that utilizes a vaccine therapy with immune checkpoint blockade may be ideal, notes Dhodapkar. This is the category where most hematologic malignancies are likely to fall, since they have a lower mutation burden. However, for those with highly immunogenic tumors, such as melanoma, a checkpoint inhibitor alone may be sufficient, he noted.

Simply eliciting an immune response is not often sufficient to kill the tumor, warned Dhodapkar. This is due to the immune system brakes, such as the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway, which suppress the immune response. This realization led to the discovery of the immune checkpoint inhibitors, which have revolutionized the treatment landscape for patients with cancer.


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