Cancer immunotherapy: the star of the ASCO Annual Meeting two years in a row!



On June 28, 2012 we published an article on this blog entitled “Cancer Immunotherapy: The Star Of The 2012 ASCO Annual Meeting”. Now comes the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2013 Annual Meeting, which took place from May 30 to June 3, 2013.

As in 2012, cancer immunotherapy was the star of the meeting.

In our June 2012 article, we focused on experimental monoclonal antibody (MAb) drugs that target the cell surface receptors programmed cell death-1 (PD-1) and programmed cell death-1 ligand (PD-L1). PD-1 is a member of the CD28/CTLA4 family of T cell regulators. Like CTLA4, the target of ipilimumab, PD-1 is a negative regulator of T-cell receptor signals. When PD-L1, which is a protein on the surface of some tumor cells, binds to PD-1 on T cells that recognize antigens on these tumor cells, this results in the blockage of the ability of the T cells to carry out an anti-tumor immune response. Anti-PD-1 MAb binds to PD-1 on T cells, thus preventing PD-L1 on tumor cells from binding to the PD-1 and initiating an inhibitory signal. Anti-tumor T cells are then free to initiate immune responses against the tumor cells. This mechanism of action is completely analogous to that of ipilimumab, which binds to CTLA4 and thus prevents negative signaling from that molecule.

Anti-PD-L1 therapeutics bind to PD-L1 on tumor cells. Ira Mellman (vice-president of research oncology at Genentech), believes that anti-PD-L1 might have fewer adverse effects than anti-PD-1. That is because anti-PD-L1 would target tumor cells while leaving T cells free to participate in immune networks that work to prevent autoimmune reactions.

Three experimental drugs in this area of immunotherapy were a main focus at ASCO in 2013. They are:

  • BMS’ anti-PD-1 agent nivolumab (BMS-936558, MDX-1106), which we had discussed in our 2012 ASCO article.
  • Merck’s anti-PD-1 agent lambrolizumab (MK-3475)
  • Roche/Genentech’s anti-PD-L1 agent MPDL3280A

We shall focus on these three agents in this article.

Competition between BMS’ nivolumab and Merck’s lambrolizumab

As highlighted in the 2013 ASCO meeting and in reports by industry commentators such as FierceBiotech, there is a keen race between BMS and Merck to be the first to market an anti-PD-1 agent.

At the ASCO 2013 meeting, BMS researchers and their colleagues reported that a third of the patients in a Phase 1 trial of nivolumab saw tumors shrink at least 30%. They also reported that patients with solid tumors [metastatic melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and renal cell carcinoma (RCC)] showed high rates of 2 year overall survival–44% for melanoma, 32% for NSCLC, and 52% for RCC (clinical trial NCT00730639).

In a first Phase 1 study of a combination therapy of nivolumab with ipilimumab in metastatic melanoma, BMS researchers and their colleagues reported that the two agents could be administered in combination safely. Clinical activity for the combination therapy appeared to exceed that of published monotherapy data for each of the two agents, with greater or equal to 80% tumor reduction at 12 weeks in 30% (11/37) of patients. In addition to the ASCO 2013 presentation, the results of this combination therapy trial were published online in the New England Journal of Medicine.

According to Fierce Biotech, BMS has 6 late-stage studies under way for nivolumab, with fast-track status in place for melanoma, lung cancer and kidney cancer.

Meanwhile, Merck announced in a June 2, 2013 press release the presentation at ASCO 2013 of interim data from a Phase 1B study evaluating its anti-PD-1 agent lambrolizumab in patients with advanced melanoma. The data was presented by Antoni Ribas, M.D., Ph.D. (Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of California, Los Angeles). in addition to the ASCO 2013 presentation, this study was published online in the New England Journal of Medicine.

A total of 135 patients with advanced melanoma were treated. Most of the adverse events seen in the study were low grade. The confirmed response rate across all dose cohorts was 38%. The highest confirmed response rate (52%) was seen in the cohort that received the highest dose (10 mg per kilogram every 2 weeks). Ten percent of the patients in the highest-dose group achieved a complete response, with response duration ranging from 28 days to 8 months.

Response rates did not differ significantly between patients who had received prior ipilimumab treatment and those who had not. Responses were durable in the majority of patients; 81% of the patients who had a response (42 out of of 52 total) were still receiving treatment at the time of analysis in March 2013. The overall median progression-free survival among the 135 patients was over 7 months.

According to Fierce Biotech, Merck now has four clinical studies under way for lambrolizumab, including a  Phase 2 trial in melanoma and Phase 1 trials in ipilimumab-naïve patients with triple-negative breast cancer, metastatic bladder cancer and head and neck cancer. The company, which has won breakthrough drug designation from the FDA for lambrolizumab, believes that the ongoing 500-patient Phase 2 melanoma study could provide enough positive data to win FDA approval. Merck is also preparing applications for late-stage clinical trials in melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer, which are planned to launch in the third quarter of 2013.

Roche/Genentech’s anti-PD-L1 agent MPDL3280A

Genentech researchers and their collaborators presented data on a clinical study of MPDL3280A in patients with metastatic melanoma at ASCO 2013. In addition to the ASCO 2013 presentation and abstract, The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute (Los Angeles, CA) published a press release about the study. Omid Hamid, M.D. of The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute made the oral presentation at the ASCO meeting.

This study was a Phase 1, multicenter, first in human, open-label, dose escalation study (clinical trial NCT01375842), which is still ongoing. It was primarily designed to assess  safety, tolerability, and pharmacokinetics of MPDL3280A in patients with metastatic melanoma. The drug was found to be well tolerated. 35 patients who began treatment at doses of 1-20 mg/kg and were enrolled prior to Jul 1, 2012 were evaluable for efficacy. An overall response rate of 26% (9/35) was observed, with all responses ongoing or improving. Some responding patients experienced tumor shrinkage within days of initial treatment. The 24-week progression-free survival was 35%. Several other patients had delayed antitumor activity after apparent tumor progression. Of three initial patients treated with a combination of MPDL3280A and vemurafenib (Daiichi Sankyo/Genentech’s Zeboraf, a targeted kinase inhibitor), two experienced tumor shrinkage, including 1 complete response. The researchers concluded that further assessment of MPDL3280A as monotherapy and combination therapy is warranted. A Phase 1 study (NCT01656642) of a combination therapy of MPDL3280A and vemurafenib in patients with previously untreated BRAFV600-mutation positive metastatic melanoma is ongoing.

Data was also presented at ASCO 2013 on the efficacy of MPDL3280A in other solid tumors. According to Roy S. Herbst, M.D. Ph.D., (Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven) MPDL3280A showed significant anti-tumor activity and was well tolerated in patients with such cancers as NSCLC, melanoma, colorectal cancer, gastric cancer, and RCC. 29 of 140 evaluable patients (21%) exhibited tumor shrinkage, with the highest overall responses in patients with NSCLC and melanoma. Of the 29 responders, 26 patients continued responding as of their last assessment.

Researchers have also been studying PD-L1 expression levels as a potential biomarker to identify likely responders. As outlined by Dr. Herbst, responses appeared to be better among patients with higher levels of PD-L1 expression. The response rate among PD-L1-positive patients was 36% (13 of 36 patients), compared with 13% (9 of 67 patients) who were PD-L1-negative. The role that PD-L1 expression might play as a biomarker is still being explored, including attempting to determine the best way to measure the protein and other related criteria.

In addition to the Phase 1 trial of MPDL3280A/vemurafenib combination therapy in melanoma, Genentech is sponsoring a Phase 1 trial of MPDL3280A in combination with bevacizumab (Genentech/Roche’s Avastin, an angiogenesis inhibitor that targets vascular endothelial growth factor) or with bevacizumab plus chemotherapy (clinical trial NCT01633970). Genentech is also sponsoring a Phase 2 clinical trial (NCT01846416) of MPDL3280A in patients With PD-L1-positive advanced NSCLC.


The field of immunotherapeutic MAbs for cancer, which target negative regulators of T-cell receptor signals, continues to advance. The approval and marketing of ipilimumab provides an important proof-of-principle for this approach. Now the field is advancing to include agents that target PD-1 and its negative regulator PD-L1. Studies of BMS’ PD-1 inhibitor nivolumab have advanced as far as Phase 3, and of Merck’s lambrolizumab as far as Phase 2. Meanwhile, Roche/Genentech’s PD-L1 inhibitor MPDL3280A has reached Phase 2.

However, the in terms of clinical trial data, it is still too early to meaningfully determine the efficacy of any of the PD-1 and PD-L1 inhibitor drugs. The meaningful data will come from randomized Phase 3 trials, based on overall survival rather than tumor response rate as in currently reported trials (with the exception of the Phase 1 results of clinical trial NCT00730639 of nivolumab described earlier, which included measures of overall survival).

Nevertheless, this is an extremely exciting field, and researchers, companies, and patient communities have high expectations of success.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company,  please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

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