Radical optimism: considering the future of immunotherapy

I wrote recently about the sense of angst taking hold in the next-generation class of immuno-therapeutics – those targets that have come after the anti-CTLA4 and anti-PD-(L)-1 classes, and raised the hope that combination immunotherapy would broadly raise response rates and durability of response across cancer indications.

There are diverse next-generation immuno-therapeutics including those that target T cells, myeloid cells, the tumor stromal cells, innate immune cells and so on. A few examples are given here (and note that only a few programs are listed for each target):

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 8.31.33 PM

There are of course many other therapeutic targets – OX40/CD134, Glutaminase, ICOS, TIM-3, LAG-3, TIGIT, RIG-1, the TLRs, various cytokines, NK cell targets, etc.

In the last year – since SITC 2017 – there has been a constant stream of negative results in the next generation immuno-therapy space, with few exceptions. Indeed, each program listed in the table has stumbled in the clinic, with either limited efficacy or no efficacy in the monotherapy setting or the combination therapy setting, typically with an anti-PD-(L)-1 (ie. an anti-PD-1 or an anti-PD-L-1  antibody). This is puzzling since preclinical modeling data (in mouse models and with human cell assays) and in some cases, translation medicine data (eg. target association with incidence, mortality, or clinical response to therapy), suggest that all of these targets should add value to cancer treatment, especially in the combination setting. I’ve discussed the limitations of these types of data sets here, nonetheless the lack of success to date has been startling.

With SITC 2018 coming up in a few days (link) I think it is a good time to step back and ask: “what are we missing?”

One interesting answer comes from the rapidly emerging and evolving view of tumor microenvironments (TME), and the complexity of those microenvironments across cancer indications, within cancer indications and even within individual patient tumors. TME complexity has many layers, starting with the underlying oncogenic drivers of specific tumor types, and the impact of those drivers on tumor immunosuppression. Examples include activation of the Wnt-beta catenin pathway and MYC gain of function mutations, which mediate one form of immune exclusion from the tumor (see below), and T cell immunosuppression, respectively (review). In indications where both pathways can be operative (either together or independently, eg. colorectal cancer, melanoma and many others) it is reasonable to hypothesize that different strategies would be needed for combination immuno-therapy to succeed, thereby producing clinical responses above anti-CTLA4 or anti-PD-(L)-1 antibody treatment alone.

A second and perhaps independent layer of complexity is TME geography, which has been roughly captured by the terms immune infiltrated, immune excluded, and immune desert (review). These TME types are illustrated simply here:

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 8.45.19 PM

The different states would appear to be distinct and self-explanatory: there are immune cells in the tumor (infiltrated), or they are pushed to the periphery (excluded), or they are absent (desert). The latter two states are often referred to as “cold” as opposed to the “hot” infiltrated state. It is common now to propose as a therapeutic strategy “turning cold tumors hot”. The problem is that these illustrated states are necessary over-simplifications. Thus, immune infiltration might suggest responsiveness to immune checkpoint therapy with anti-PD-(L)-1 antibodies, and indeed, one biomarker of tumor responsiveness is the presence of CD8+ T cells in the tumor. But in reality, many tumors are infiltrated with T cells that fail to respond to immune checkpoint therapy at all. The immune excluded phenotype, alluded to above with reference to the Wnt-beta catenin pathway, can be driven instead by TGF beta signaling, or other pathways. The immune desert may exist because of active immune exclusion, lack of immune stimulation (eg. MHC-negative tumors) or because of physical barriers to immune infiltration. Therefore, all three states represent diverse biologies within and across tumor types. Further, individual tumors have different immune states in different parts of the tumor, and different tumors within the patient can also have diverse phenotypes.

There are yet other layers of complexity: in the way tumors respond to immune checkpoint therapy (the “resistance” pathways, see below), the degree to which immune cells responding to the tumor cells are “hardwired” (via epigenetic modification), the metabolic composition of the TME, and so on. Simply put, our understanding remains limited. The effect of this limited understanding is evident: if we challenge tumors with a large enough immune attack we can measure a clinical impact – this is what has been achieved, for example, with the anti-PD-(L)-1 class of therapeutics. With a lesser immune attack we can see immune correlates of response (so something happened in the patient that we can measure as a biomarker) but the clinical impact is less. This is what has happened with nearly all next-generation immuno-therapeutics. As a side note, unless biomarker driven strategies are wedded to a deep understanding of specific tumor responsiveness to the therapeutic they can be red herrings - one example may be ICOS expression, although more work is needed there. Understanding specific tumor responsiveness is critical regardless of biomarker use, due to the layered complexity of each indication, and even each patient’s tumors within a given indication.

So why should we be optimistic?

I propose that some of the next generation immuno-therapeutics will have their day, and soon, due to several key drivers: first, for some of these classes, improved drugs are moving through preclinical and early clinical pipelines (eg. A2AR, STING). Second, the massive amount of effort being directed toward understanding the immune status of diverse tumors ought to allow more specific targeting of next generation immuno-therapeutics to more responsive tumor types. The TGF beta signature presents a particularly interesting example. Genentech researchers recently published signatures of response and resistance to atezolizumab (anti-PD-L1) in bladder cancer (link). In bladder cancer about 50% of tumors have an excluded phenotype, and about 25% each have an immune infiltrated or immune desert phenotype. The response rate to treatment with atezolizumab was 23% with a complete response rate of 9% (note that responses did not correlate with PD-L1 expression but did correlate with both tumor mutational burden and a CD8+ T cell signature). Non-responding patients were analyzed for putative resistance pathways. One clear signature of resistance emerged – the TGF beta pathway, but only in those patients whose tumor showed the immune excluded phenotype. The pathway signature was associated with fibroblasts, but not myeloid cells, in multiple tumor types. The T cells were trapped by collagen fibrils produced by the fibroblasts:

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 9.04.16 PM

(The image is a screenshot from Dr Turley’s talk at CICON18 last month).

It follows that a combination of a TGF beta inhibitor and a PD-(L)-1 inhibitor for the treatment of bladder and perhaps other cancers should be used in patients whose tumors show the immune excluded TME phenotype, and perhaps also show a fibroblast signature in that exclusion zone. Indeed, in a recent paper, gene expression profiling of melanoma patients was used to demonstrate that a CD8-related gene signature could predict response to immuno-therapy – but only if the TGF beta signature was low (link).

There are other immunotherapy resistance pathways – some we know and some are yet to be discovered. We should eventually be able in future to pair specific pathway targeting drugs to tumors whose profile includes that pathway’s signature – this has been done, retrospectively, with VEGF inhibitors and anti-PD-(L)-1 therapeutics. This will require a more comprehensive analysis of biopsy tissue beyond CD8+ T cell count and PD-1 or PD-L1 expression – perhaps immunohistochemistry and gene transcript profiling – but these are relatively simple technologies to develop, and adaptable for a hospital clinical lab settings. Not every next generation immuno-therapeutic will succeed as the clinical prosecution becomes more targeted, but some certainly will (we might remain hopeful about adenosine pathway inhibitors, STING agonists, and oncolytic virus therapeutics, to name a few examples).

Another driver of success will be cross-talk with other technologies within immuno-oncology – notably cell therapy (eg. CAR-T) and oncolytic virus technologies. We have already seen the successful adaptation of cytokines, 4-1BB signaling, OX40 signaling and other T cell stimulation pathways into CAR T cell designs, and the nascent use of PD-1 and TGF beta signaling domains in cell therapy strategies designed to thwart immuno-suppression (we should note here that CAR T cells, like tumor infiltrating T cells, will face  barriers to activity in different tumor indications). The example of local (and potentially safer) cytokine secretion by engineered CAR-T cells has helped drive the enormous interest in localized cytokine technologies. Most recently, the combination of CAR-T, oncolytic virus and immune checkpoint therapy has shown remarkable preclinical activity.

SITC 2018 – #SITC18 on Twitter – will feature sessions on  immunotherapy resistance and response, the tumor microenvironment, novel cytokines and other therapeutics, cell-based therapies, and lessons from immuno-oncology trials (often, what went wrong). We can expect lots of new information, much of it now focused on understanding how better to deploy the many next generation immuno-therapeutics that have been developed.

So, I would argue that “radical optimism” for next generation immunotherapy and immunotherapy combinations is warranted, despite a year or more of clinical setbacks. Much of the underlying science is sound and it is targeted clinical translation that is often lagging behind. Progress will have to come from sophisticated exploratory endpoint analysis (who responded, and why), sophisticated clinical trial inclusion criteria (who to enroll, and why) and eventually, personalized therapeutic application at the level of the indication and eventually the patient.

In the meantime, stay tuned.