Targeting TNFRs with agonist antibodies for cancer therapy: 4-1BB, GITR, CD27

One of the puzzles in thinking about the available costimulatory receptors on T cells (and NK cells) is the unsettling number of them. Sticking just to the TNF receptor superfamily (TNFRSF) we have OX40 (discussed earlier), 4-1BB, GITR, CD27, and also the TNF receptors themselves (1 and 2), the lymphotoxin beta-receptor, HVEM, and TNFRSF25. There may be some I’ve forgotten. As noted in part 1 OX40, GITR, 4-1BB and CD27 are evolutionary cousins, as are their cognate ligands. Why did the immune system evolve such a complexity of T cell costimulators?

The answer is not entirely clear although the expression patterns and kinetics of expression suggest some rationale for understanding the number of different receptors. Also, as it’s understood that all the TNF receptors signal via NF-kB, Jun and p38, we might see these receptors either compete (for signaling proteins) or cooperate. All of the available genetic and pharmacologic data suggest they cooperate or even synergize, thereby powering the T cell response when needed. Since T cell responses (and immune responses generally) are so dangerous when dysregulated, the multiplicity of on and off switches presumably allows for redundancy of control.

As we said previously, OX40 comes on slow and easy, starting about 12 hours after TCR stimulation, and riding along for up to 96 hours. This is in vitro, cell culture data … so lets recognize that in vivo, in response to the chaotic presentation of antigen, the population of T cells is likely to be turning over, proliferating … so it’s unlikely we will see a finely tuned kinetic response in the real world, as regards the population of responding cells. Nonetheless we can focus on a single T cell, just the one. And we’ve guessed it will be expressing OX40 say from day 2 to day 5 after activation. Lets ignore the fact that activated effector T cells are likely dividing more rapidly than every 5 days, and just ask the simple question – of the other TNFSF receptors, what else is expressed and when, and on what T cell and other cell types?

Cue 4-1BB.

4-1BB is also expressed following T cell activation, and is expressed on other cell types also. 4-1BB expression come up much more quickly after T cell activation, within a few hours, and wanes after several days. This receptor is critical to supporting activated T cell proliferation, differentiation and survival. Expression on T cells may be coincident with OX40, but the consequences of engaging the receptor with an agonist antibody are different. 4-1BB preferentially supports the proliferation and survival of CD8+ T cells, although at least in some settings the activity of CD4+ T cells is also stimulated through 4-1BB. Much of the anti-tumor activity of 4-1BB agonist antibodies in preclinical studies can be traced to stimulation of NK cells although this depends of the tumor type and model used. Less well understood is the role on 4-1BB on other cells types. This receptor is also found on DCs, macrophages, granulocytes, and Tregs. Expression has also been described on vascular endothelium and on some tumor cells. The role of 4-1BB is confusing, with various studies showing expansion of the Treg subset and others suggesting that 4-1BB dampens Treg responses, perhaps via direct effects on DCs. The 4-1BB gene-knockout mouse shows aspects of autoimmune disorders (at least in the mouse strains tested), suggesting a role for 4-1BB in maintaining immune homeostasis following activation. 4-1BB knockout mice have trouble handling tumor challenge, and at least some spontaneously develop B cell lymphomas as they age. It is all a bit complicated.

Regardless, there are two antibodies that can provide some early clinical data. Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY) started development of the BMS-663513 antibody quite early, before the immunotherapy wave had really gotten started. BMS-663513 is a specific anti-4-1BB agonist antibody, isotype IgG4. The antibody ran into toxicity issues in a phase 2 trial of metastatic melanoma in 2011, leading to a halt of three trials with that antibody. As the toxicity was correlated with dose, BMY has restarted the clinical campaign with BMS-663513, now called urelumab to establish a safe and efficacious dose. A monotherapy trial is being run in patients with advanced/metastatic solid tumors or with relapsed/refractory Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL). A second trial in NHL is being run in combination with rituximab treatment. A third trial in advanced/metastatic colorectal and head and neck cancers is being run in combination with cetuximab (anti-EGFR). Pfizer’s (PFE) PF-05082566 is an agonist anti-4-1BB antibody (IgG2 isotype). One trial is listed at, a 3×3 dose escalation phase 1 trial run as monotherapy in patients with advanced cancers, and as combination therapy with rituximab in NHL.

At the June ASCO meeting there will be updates on both the BMY and PFE programs. BMY has a presentation focused on mechanism of action and biomarker analyses. Abstract #3017 outlines the goal of monitoring the immune status of 4 patients prior to and during the phase 1 study of urelumab (BMS-663513: clinical trial NCT01471210). The antibody was given every 3 weeks and the analysis presents results through 3 cycles. PBMCs were isolated from whole blood, and stimulated for 4 hours with PMA/ionomycin to activate lymphocytes. There was an increase in CD8 T cells up to 41% and NK cells up to 62%. CD4 T cells decreased by as much as 23% and regulatory CD4 T cells decreased by as much as 18% comparing the 3rd cycle to baseline. The results are consistent with a preferential impact on CD8+ T cells and NK cells. The level of the cytokines GM-CSF and IFNgamma were increased.

The PFE study (abstract #3007) describes very early data from clinical trial NCT01307267. Patients received PF-05082566 IV every 4 weeks (one cycle) with an 8 week period for assessment of dose-limiting toxicity (DLT) and radiographic analysis of tumor burden (RECIST 1.1). 27 patients were up to 0.3 mg/kg, the highest dose reported in the abstract. The majority of patients had either colorectal cancer (n=11) or Merkel cell carcinoma (n=6), the rest were a collection of solid tumor patients and 2 patients with B cell lymphoma.  25/27 patients completed the DLT assessment period (first cycle). No DLT was established but only 7 patients remain on therapy. All discontinuations from treatment were due to disease progression. A best overall response of stable disease was observed in 6 patients. No duration data is supplied.

These two early trials suggest that safe dose levels can be achieved, that a mechanism of action can be confirmed (urelumab: expansion of CD8+ T cells and NK cells), and that some clinical response can be observed (PF-05082566: stable disease). That’s a pretty good picture coming out of Phase 1. As preclinical data suggest that 4-1BB is most effective in various combination formats, it will be interesting to monitor advances in the rituximab and cetuximab co-therapy arms of these trials. Several potent combinations arising in the preclinical literature include 4-1BB with immune checkpoint inhibition (CTLA4 or the PD-1 pathway) and in combination with agonist OX40 antibody therapy.

Lets get back to the Treg cells, whose function is to suppress immune responses, primarily those of CD4+ T cells. These express 4-1BB constitutively, although it’s not clear how or if they are responding to treatment with agonist anti-4-1BB antibodies. Let’s turn to a different pathway known to have a profound effect on Tregs, the Glucocorticoid-Induced TNFR Related gene (GITR). GITR was first identified as a regulatory T-cell marker and was shown to play a critical role in breaking T cell tolerance by direct suppression of Treg activity. The preclinical evaluation of GITR produced some very striking data, including in combination settings in which anti-GITR antibodies essentially synergized with other immune checkpoint therapeutics to eliminate established tumors. Such combinations have included PD-1 blockade and CTLA4 blockade. GITR agonism is also synergistic with chemotherapy in preclinical models. Clinical development of GITR antibodies has been slow. A program initiated at TolerX and reborn at GITR, Inc., is recruiting for a phase 1 trial in advanced melanoma and other solid tumors. The antibody is TRX518 (NCT01239134). Merck is advancing a phase 1 study with the anti-GITR antibody MK-4166, although this trial (NCT02132754) is not yet recruiting patients. Review articles have mentioned an ongoing clinical program at MSKCC – this is one of the three sites enrolling patients in the TRX518 trial.

To the extent that the driving mechanism of action (MOA) of GITR stimulation is shown to be downregulation of Treg activity, this pathway should be a good candidate for combination therapy with 4-1BB, OX40 or CD27 agonists (see below) as well as with the CTLA4 and PD-1 pathway antagonists. If the MOA in human cancer patients is different or more complex than proposed, different combinations may be more or less attractive.

One last receptor – CD27.

The costimulatory molecule CD27 is constitutively expressed on most effector T cells, memory B cells, and an NK cell subset. So its expression may also overlap with those of the other receptors. CD27 appears to be important for sustained T cell effector function and also the development of T cell memory. CD27 is a marker of memory T cells, conversely, it is low or absent on Tregs. More broadly, CD27 supports germinal center formation that drives B cell maturation and the differentiation of plasma cells that produce high affinity antibodies, and is also important in driving the cytolytic activity of some NK cells.

Although there is a large preclinical literature on CD27 and its ligand CD70, there are few antibodies in clinical development. There are several historical explanations for this I think. CD70 is expressed at high levels on certain tumor types, particularly renal cell carcinoma (RCC). Much effort has gone into the development of cell-depleting antibodies targeting CD70. This expression pattern also called into question the relevance of CD27 in controlling tumor growth, as the ligand would be expected to stimulate immune responses. We now know that RCC and other solid tumors expresses high levels of PD-L1, and likely disables immune responses via this pathway. Not surprisingly then, one of the ongoing clinical efforts is a combination trial of nivolumab, the anti-PD-1 antibody from BMY with CDX-1127, an anti-CD27 antibody from Celldex (CLDX) in a collaboration announced by the 2 companies last week. In the meantime we have 2 abstracts from CLDX at ASCO in June to look forward to. In a 3×3 phase 1 dose escalation study of B cell lymphoma patients the drug was well tolerated with weekly IV dosing, and there were signs of clinical response, including a durable complete response in one patient with advanced refractory disease (abstract #3024; clinical trial NCT01460134). In the same trial, solid tumor patients were treated in a dose escalation phase and then an expansion phase (RCC and melanoma). The drug was well tolerated, there were preliminary signs of clinical response, and measureable activation of the immune system (Abstract #3027). With the potential to support memory T cell differentiation, CD27 may provide an important additional signal to drive long term tumor control. We’ll have to wait and see.

So, we have 4 receptors with overlapping activities and we have multiple antibodies in various stages of development. There will be plenty to learn about these targets and their roles in the future of combination immunotherapy. One of the most promising paths forward is the analysis of immune checkpoint and costimulatory proteins on tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs). It seems very likely that the makeup of the tumor cell defense against the immune system will diverge between tumor types, and perhaps between patients with the same tumor types, or even with the same patient tumor at different times, or in different metastatic locations. Profiling TILs, and perhaps sentinel lymph nodes, for the expression patterns of lymphocytes and antigen presenting cells is likely to help guide combination therapy.

We’ll come back to that. And we’ve not forgotten those NK cells either.

stay tuned.