Dr. Steven Rosenberg

Dr. Steven Rosenberg

On September 6, 2014, we published an article on this blog announcing the publication of our book-length report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors, Cancer Vaccines, and Adoptive T-cell Therapies, by Cambridge Healthtech Institute (CHI).

In that article, we cited the example of the case of a woman with metastatic cholangiocarcinoma (bile-duct cancer), which typically kills the patient in a matter of months. The patient, Melinda Bachini, was treated via adoptive immunotherapy with autologous tumor-infiltrating T cells (TILs) resulting in survival over a period of several years, with a good quality of life.

Our report includes a full discussion of that case, as of the date of the May 2014 publication of a report in Science by Steven A. Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D. and his colleagues at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Ms. Bachini’s story was also covered in a May 2014 New York Times article.

Now comes the publication, in Science on December 2015, of an update from the Rosenberg group on their clinical studies of TIL-based immunotherapy of metastatic gastrointestinal cancers. This article discusses the results of TIL treatment of ten patients with a variety of gastrointestinal cancers, including cancers of the bile duct, the colon or rectum, the esophagus, and the pancreas. The case of Ms. Bachini (“patient number 3737”) was included.

Ms. Bachini, a paramedic and a married mother of six children, and a volunteer with the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation, was 41 years old when first diagnosed with cancer. She remains alive today—a five-year survivor—at age 46.

The Foundation produced a video, dated March 13, 2015, in which Ms. Bachini gives her “patient perspective”. This video includes her story “from the beginning”—from diagnosis through surgery and chemotherapy, and continuing with adoptive immunotherapy at the NCI under Dr. Rosenberg. Although her tumors continue to shrink and she remains alive, she still is considered to have “Stage 4” (metastatic) cancer. Ms. Bachini is a remarkable woman.

The Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation has also produced an on-demand webinar (dated October 21, 2014) on the adoptive cellular therapy trial in patients with various types of metastatic gastrointestinal cancers, led by Drs. Eric Tran and Steven Rosenberg. Ms. Bachini is also a presenter on that webinar. The December 2015 Science article is an updated version of the results of this trial.

The trial, a Phase 2 clinical study (NCT01174121) remains ongoing, and is recruiting new patients.

The particular focus of Dr. Tran’s and Dr. Rosenberg’s study in TIL treatment of gastrointestinal cancers is whether TILs derived from these tumors include T-cell subpopulations that target specific somatic mutations expressed by the cancers, and whether these subpopulations might be harnessed to successfully treat patients with these cancers. Of the ten patients who were the focus of the December 2015 publication, only Ms. Bachini had a successful treatment. In the case of Ms. Bachini, she received a second infusion of TILs that were enriched for CD4+ T cells that targeted a unique mutation in a protein known as ERBB2IP. It was this second treatment that resulted in the successful knockdown of her tumors, which continues to this day.

Despite the lack of similar successes in the treatment of the other nine patients, the researchers found that TILs from eight of these patients contained CD4+ and/or CD8+ T cells that recognized one to three somatic mutations in the patient’s own tumors. Notably, CD8+ TILs isolated from a colon cancer tumor of one patient (patient number 3995) recognized a mutation in KRAS known as KRAS G12D. This mutation results in an amino acid substitution at position 12 in KRAS, from glycine (G) to aspartic acid (D). KRAS G12D is a driver mutation that is involved in causation of many human cancers.

Although two other patients (numbers 4032 and 4069, with colon and pancreatic cancer, respectively) had tumors that expressed KRAS G12D, the researchers did not detect TILs that recognized the KRAS mutation in these patients. The researchers concluded that KRAS G12D was not immunogenic in these patients. The TILs from patient 3995 were CD8+ T cells that recognized KRAS G12D in the context of the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) allele HLA-C*08:02. [As with all T cells, TILs express T-cell receptors (TCRs) that recognize a specific antigenic peptide bound to a particular major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecule—this is referred to as “MHC restriction”.] The two patients for whom KRAS G12D was not immunogenic did not express the HLA-C*08:02 allele.

The results seen with KRAS G12D-expressing tumor suggest the possibility of constructing genetically-engineered CD8+ T cells that express a TCR that is reactive with the KRAS mutation in the context of the HLA-C*08:02 allele. The KRAS G12D driver mutation is expressed in about 45% of pancreatic adenocarcinomas, 13% of colorectal cancers, and at lower frequencies in other cancers, and the HLA-C*08:02 allele is expressed by approximately 8% and 11% of white and black people, respectively, in the U.S. Thus, in the U.S. alone, thousands of patients per year with metastatic gastrointestinal cancers would potentially be eligible for immunotherapy with this KRASG12D-reactive T cell.

Although only Ms. Bachini (“patient number 3737”) was a long-term survivor, the researchers were able to treat three other patients with enriched populations of TILs targeting predominantly one mutated tumor antigen. Patient 4069 experienced a transient regression of multiple lung metastases of his pancreatic adenocarcinoma, but patients 4007 and 4032 had no objective response. Whereas 23% of circulating T cells at one month after treatment were adoptively transferred mutation-specific TILs in the case of Ms. Bachini, the other three patients treated with enriched populations of mutation-specific TILs showed no or minimal persistence. The researchers concluded that they will need to develop strategies designed to enhance the potency and persistence of adoptively transferred mutation-specific TILs. Nevertheless, the researchers concluded that nearly all patients with advanced gastrointestinal cancers harbor tumor mutation-specific TILs. This finding may serve as the basis for developing personalized adoptive cellular therapies and/or vaccines that can effectively target common epithelial cancers.


Dr. Rosenberg pioneered the study and development of adoptive cellular immunotherapy, beginning in the 1980s. Most studies with TIL-based adoptive immunotherapy have been in advanced melanoma. Adoptive cellular immunotherapy is the most effective approach to inducing complete durable regressions in patients with metastatic melanoma.

As we discussed in our cancer immunotherapy report, melanoma tumors have many more somatic mutations (about 200 nonsynonymous mutations per tumor) than most types of cancer. This appears to be due to the role of a potent immunogen—ultraviolet light—in the pathogenesis of melanoma. The large number of somatic mutations in melanomas results in the infiltration of these tumors by TILs that target the mutations. As discussed in our report, Dr. Rosenberg and his colleagues cultured TIL cell lines that addressed specific immunodominant mutations in patients’ melanomas. Treatment with these cell lines in several cases resulted in durable complete remissions of the patients’ cancers.

Dr. Rosenberg and his colleagues used the same strategy employed in identification of TIL cell lines that targeted specific mutations in melanomas to carry out the study in gastrointestinal cancers, as discussed in our report. However, the small number of somatic mutations and of endogenous TILs in gastrointestinal cancers and in most other epithelial cancers has made studies in these cancers more difficult than studies in melanoma.

in addition, the susceptibility of melanoma to treatment with checkpoint inhibitors such as the PD-1 blockers pembrolizumab (Merck’s Keytruda) and nivolumab (Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo) correlates with the large number of somatic mutations in this type of cancer. As we discussed in our December 15, 2014 article on this blog, immune checkpoint inhibitors work by reactivating endogenous tumor-infiltrating T cells (TILs). In the case of melanoma, these endogenous TILs target the numerous somatic mutations found in these cancers, and—as suggested by Dr. Rosenberg’s studies with cultured TIL cell lines—those endogenous TILs that target immunodominant mutations can induce durable compete remissions. As discussed in our December 15, 2014 blog article, the three major types of immuno-oncology treatments—immune checkpoint inhibitors, cancer vaccines, and adoptive T-cell therapies, work via related mechanisms.

In 2015, researchers showed that other types of cancers that have numerous somatic mutations are especially susceptible to checkpoint inhibitor treatment. These include, for example, non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs) that have mutational signatures that indicate that the cancers were caused by smoking, and cancers that have mutations in genes involved in DNA repair. (Mutations in genes involved in DNA repair pathways result in the generation of numerous additional mutations.)

Moreover, as discussed in our December 15, 2014 blog article, cancer immunotherapy researchers have been expanding the types of tumors that can be treated with checkpoint inhibitors. Genentech/Roche’s PD-L1 inhibitor that was discussed in that article, MPDL3280A, is now called atezolizumab. The clinical trials of atezolizumab discussed in that article and in our report have continued to progress. In a pivotal Phase 2 study in locally advanced or metastatic urothelial bladder cancer (UBC), atezolizumab shrank tumors in 27 percent of people whose disease had medium and high levels of PD-L1 expression and had worsened after initial treatment with platinum chemotherapy. These responses were found to be durable. According to Genentech, these results may represent the first major treatment advance in advanced UBC in nearly 30 years. Atezolizumab also gave positive results in Phase 2 clinical trials in patients with NSCLC that expresses medium to high levels of PD-L1.

Meanwhile, NewLink Genetics (Ames, IA) has entered Phase 3 clinical trials in pancreatic cancer with its HyperAcute cellular immunotherapy vaccine therapy. A Phase 2 trial of the company’s HyperAcute cellular immunotherapy algenpantucel-L in combination with chemotherapy and chemoradiotherapy in resected pancreatic cancer (clinical trial number NCT00569387) appears to be promising.

Dr. Rosenberg’s studies of TIL therapies of gastrointestinal cancers represent another approach to moving immuno-oncology treatments beyond melanoma, based on mutation-specific targeting. The types of cancers that form the focus of these studies—gastrointestinal epithelial cancers—have proven difficult to treat. Moreover, several of them are among the most common of cancers. The researchers and patients involved in these and other immuno-oncology studies are heroes, and oncologists appear to be making measured progress against cancers that have been until recently considered untreatable.


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