Robert Ferris, MD, PhD
For decades, Robert Ferris, MD, PhD, has been chasing his “Holy Grail”—harnessing the immune system to fight cancer.
“Since I got my MD/PhD 20 years ago in immunology/immunotherapy, I have dreamed about the potential for reversing the immunosuppression of cancer and stimulating the immune system as a fourth therapeutic modality,” says Ferris, professor and chief, Division of Head and Neck Surgery, vice chair for Clinical Operations, associate director for Translational Research, and coleader of the Cancer Immunology Program at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.
Recently, Ferris made a significant stride toward achieving that objective.
Along with Maura Gillison, MD, PhD, of Ohio State University, Ferris served as the international cochair/coprimary investigator for the phase III CheckMate-141 trial. The trial, which examined the anti–PD-1 agent nivolumab (Opdivo) versus investigator’s choice of cetuximab (Erbitux), methotrexate, or docetaxel in patients with platinum-refractory squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN), was stopped early after it was determined nivolumab had met its primary endpoint of overall survival improvement. Eligible patients will now be able to continue treatment or cross over to receive nivolumab.
“This is what I’ve devoted my career to, and it is gratifying to see that really come to pass,” says Ferris. “To have an anti–PD-1 agent be proven to improve survival in head and neck cancer in a randomized phase III trial, and the potential for a new FDA approval in the near future is a game changer. There is now hope for a lot of patients and physicians who have been frustrated by this difficult-to-treat disease. This opens up a whole new class of therapies for this population.”
The phase III data have not yet been released. However, early discontinuation of the trial, which was scheduled to run until October 2016, has generated significant excitement in the field, says Ferris, who is a primary author on the abstract submitted for presentation at the ASCO Annual Meeting.
In an interview with OncLive, Ferris discusses CheckMate-141, the biggest remaining challenges in head and neck cancer, and the potential for nivolumab as a treatment of patients with the disease.
OncLive: What prompted the investigation of nivolumab as a treatment for this patient population?
Ferris: It is clear that this is a population with a devastating disease that has not had an FDA-approved drug in 10 years. It was 2006 when cetuximab was approved and that was a relatively modest advance, although it was the first targeted therapy. We have a population without any other therapeutic options and a very rapid progression.
Anti–PD-1 agents have had promising data in melanoma and squamous non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Squamous NSCLC genomically resembles HPV-negative head and neck cancer in its behavior regarding carcinogen exposure. Therefore, we felt it might respond well to anti–PD-1 agents, too. We designed the study to hopefully create something new and effective for an essentially hopeless palliative group of patients.
Head and neck cancer, particularly HPV-negative disease, which makes up the majority of recurrence head and neck cancers, is very immunosuppressive. It weakens the immune system and allows the cancer to grow. We thought, “If we could try and reverse that effect, using an anti–PD-1 strategy, that would be fantastic.”
What is the current standard of care for patients with SCCHN?
It is important to recognize that the standard of care differs throughout the world. We designed this trial to reflect that and included an investigator’s choice agent—cetuximab, methotrexate, or docetaxel. Patients were randomized to either the nivolumab arm or the control arm, and investigators were able to select the agent that those in the control arm received.
We still don’t have public data for what all of the standard of care selections were, but we do know that cetuximab tends to be used more in North America. Meanwhile, the other 2 agents are more likely to be used in Europe and other countries because cetuximab is not approved there.
The benefits are really very modest with those single-agent treatments and they are toxic. There is very much a need for a new treatment. We are very interested in the toxicity profile of nivolumab, as it has proven to be well tolerated in other cancers.
What do you think the reaction will be once the data from this trial are released?
We do have single-agent data from the 2015 ASCO Annual Meeting with a very similar agent, pembrolizumab (Keytruda) in head and neck cancer. The data for anti–PD-1 with either pembrolizumab or nivolumab appear to be very similar, in different cancer types in terms of the efficacy and side effect profile.
Therefore, there was a suspicion that nivolumab would be promising in head and neck cancer, as well. There is a great deal of buzz from medical oncology leaders all over the country regarding this. People have really been waiting with bated breath for something for our patients. This is a real win for the community and for a population of patients with a devastating disease in a very important area of the body.
This disease can disrupt speaking, drinking, swallowing, and has catastrophic consequences. I expect enthusiasm and support from the community regarding this.
Do you see the use of nivolumab expanding into other settings in head and neck cancer?
This data reinforces the fact that many ongoing clinical trials are looking at anti–PD-1 agents in head and neck cancer. We are on the way to moving it earlier in the disease. I see it being used not only in first-line recurrent disease, but also in locally advanced disease.
Dr Maura Gillison and I, along with ASCO Annual Program Committee member Dr Quynh-Thu Le, are running a trial through the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group in previously untreated patients with curable head and neck cancers with nivolumab. There are trials in first-line, combination trials with nivolumab planned in all settings, and one is opening in the near future for curative, locally advanced, high-risk patients with head and neck cancer.
For these patients, survival has not really improved in the last few decades, so we are going to intensify their treatment by adding nivolumab to standard therapy. I think the future will include adding nivolumab to current therapy and, in some cases, replacing chemotherapy. There is a lot of potential for this agent.