Immuno-oncology (IO) combination therapy- why the angst?

Thoughts triggered by discussions over the last month or two, perceived sentiment on social media, reaction to clinical updates, and pre-AACR butterflies.

In 2015 Gordon Freeman of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, one of the discoverers of the PD-1/PD-L1 axis, rang me up and asked if I would help write a review with he and Kathleen Mahoney, an oncologist doing a research rotation in his lab. We ambitiously laid out the argument that PD-1/PD-L1 directed therapeutics would be the backbone of important combination therapies and reviewed the classes of potential combinatorial checkpoints ( We covered new immune checkpoint pathways within the Ig superfamily, T cell stimulatory receptors in the TNF receptor superfamily, stimulatory and inhibitory receptors on NK cells and macrophages, targets in the tumor microenvironment (TME), and so on. Importantly we also stopped to consider combinations with “traditional” cancer treatments, e.g. chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and also with “molecular” therapeutics, those directed to critical proteins that make cells cancerous. Regardless, it’s fair to say that we believed that pairing an anti-PD-1 mAb or an anti-PD-L1 mAb with another immuno-modulatory therapeutic would quickly yield impressive clinical results. A massive segment of the IO ecosystem (investors, oncologists, biopharma) shared this belief, and largely still does. Those stakeholders are betting clinical and R&D resources plus huge amounts of money on the promise of IO combinations. After all, the first IO combination of anti-CTLA4 mAb ipilimumab and anti-PD-1 mAb nivolumab has dramatically improved clinical response in advanced melanoma patients and to a lesser extent in advanced lung cancer patients. The downside is additive toxicity, and so the palpable feeling has been that new IO combinations would give a similar efficacy bump, perhaps even with less toxicity.

It’s now about two and a half years since we began drafting that paper and the inevitable letdown has set in. What happened? Let’s cover a few issues:

- Several marque IO combinations have been disappointing so far. Last year we saw unimpressive results from urelumab (anti-4-1BB) in combination with nivolumab (anti-PD-1) and of epacadostat (an IDO inhibitor) paired with pembrolizumab (anti-PD-1).

- Monotherapy trials of therapeutics directed to hot new targets (OX40, CSF1R, A2AR etc.) did not produce any dramatic results, forcing a reevaluation of the potential for truly transformative clinical synergy in the IO combination setting.

- These first two points also reminded the field of how limited preclinical mouse modeling can be.

- Combinations of standard of care with anti-CTLA4 mAb ipilimumab and with PD-1 pathway inhibitors have begun to show promising results, raising the efficacy bar in a variety of indications. There have been several startling examples: the combination of pembrolizumab plus chemotherapy in first line lung cancer, which doubled response rates over pembrolizumab alone; the combination of cobimetinib (a MEK inhibitor) with atezolizumab (anti-PD-L1 mAb) in colorectal cancer (MSS-type) which produced clinical responses in patient population generally non-responsive to anti-PD-1 pathway inhibition; the combination of atezolizumab plus bevacizumab (anti-VEGF) in renal cell carcinoma, showing promising early results; and so on.

- We can add the realization that relapses are a growing issue in the field, with approximately 30% of anti-CTLA4 or anti-PD-1 pathway treated patients eventually losing the anti-tumor response.

Note here that all of this is happening in a rapidly evolving landscape and is subject to snap-judgment reevaluation as clinical data continue to come in. For example, rumors that IDO inhibition is working well have been spreading in advance of the upcoming AACR conference. Indeed the clinical work on all of the immuno-modulatory pathways and IO combinations has increased, and the race to improve care in diverse indications continues. There will be additional success stories.

Why the perception of angst then? The sentiment has been summed up as “everything will work a little, so what do we research/fund/advance? How do we choose? How will we differentiate”? Such sentiment puts intense pressure on discovery, preclinical and early clinical programs to show robust benefit or, and perhaps this is easier, benefit in particular indications or clinical settings. I started thinking about this recently when a friend of mine walked me through a very pretty early stage program targeting a novel pathway. It was really quite impressive but it was also apparent that the hurdles the program would have to clear were considerable. Indeed it seemed likely that validation of the therapeutic hypothesis (that this particular inhibitor would be useful in IO) would not come from preclinical data in mice (no matter how pretty), nor from a Phase 1 dose escalation safety study, nor from a Phase 1 expansion cohort, but would require Phase 2 data from a combination study with an anti-PD-1 pathway therapeutic. That is, 5+ years from now, assuming all went smoothly. To advance such a therapeutic will take intense focus in order to build a fundable narrative, and will require stringent stage-gates along the way. Even then it will be very hard to pull it off. If this reminds you of the “valley of death” we used to talk about in the biotech realm, well, it should.

What should we look for to shake up this landscape? As mentioned, this is a rapidly evolving space. We have already seen a shift in language (“step on the gas” vs. “make a cold tumor hot” is one good example), but let’s list a few:

- “Cold tumors” have no immune response to stimulate. Making them “hot” is a hot field that includes oncolytic virus therapeutics, vaccines, “danger signals” (TLRs, STING, etc), and, to loop back around, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

- Relapsed patients – as noted above we are seeing ~30% relapse rate in immunotherapy treated patients. Understanding the basis for relapse is a promising field and one that an emerging therapeutic could (and very likely will) productively target.

- Targeting the TME in cold tumors and in unresponsive tumors (the difference is the unresponsive tumors look like they should respond, in that they contain T cells). This is a vast field that covers tumor cell and stromal cell targets, secreted factors, tumor and T cell metabolism and on and on. One can imagine a setting in which a particular TME is characterized (by IHC, Txp or other means) and the appropriate immuno-modulatory therapeutics are applied. We see this paradigm emerging in some indications already. This would certainly be useful as a personalized medicine approach and could be an excellent way to position an emerging therapeutic.

We could go further to talk about the neoantigen composition of particular tumor types, the role of the underlying mutanome, the plasticity of the TME (it’s a chameleon), metabolic checkpoints, and other, potentially novel, targets.

All of this is under intense and active investigation and important data will emerge in time. Until then, nascent immunotherapy programs need to tell a clear and compelling story in order to attract the interest of investors, biopharma and ultimately, oncology clinical trialists. Those that fail to develop a compelling narrative are likely to struggle.

I’ll just end on a few narratives I really like for IO combinations going forward:

- the role of innate immunity in activating immune responses and expanding existing responses (e.g. immune primers like STING agonists and NK cell activators like lirilumab)

- the role of adenosine in maintaining an immunosuppressed (ie. non-responsive) TME (thus inhibitors of A2AR, CD39, CD73)

- the role of beta-catenin signaling in non-responsive tumors (while carefully selecting the mode of inhibition)

- the role of TGF-beta activity in resistance to PD-1 pathway therapeutics (again, with care in selecting the mode of inhibition)

of course at Aleta we’ve charted a different course, ever mindful of the need to focus where we see clear yet tractable unmet need. so we’ll see, starting with AACR in early April, kicking off an active medical conference season.

stay tuned.