One of the hottest topics in oncology right now is the use of the latest generation of immunotherapy drugs, particularly drugs called checkpoint inhibitors – also known as anti-PD1/PDl1 and anti-CTLA4 drugs. The most well-known of these are ipilimumab (Yervoy), pembrolizumab (Keytruda), and nivolumab (Opdivo) – drugs which are making headlines the world over with some truly astonishing instances of remission in metastatic melanoma and other hard to treat cancers. However, as with many other targeted therapies, there are also two major problems with these treatments. The first is that only a subset of patients show any response, and sometimes these responses do not last for very long before resistance kicks in. A second problem is that these drugs are not without side effects, some of them quite serious. It’s this first problem that I want to focus on in this blog post.
Being able to improve the response rate to these treatments would mean that many more advanced cancer patients may benefit from these treatments. This is an area of intense research at the moment, with multiple trials looking at different mechanisms to address the issue. One obvious response has been to investigate combination treatments in which two of these drugs are used together – for example ipilimumab and nivolumab together. Results so far suggest that the combination is effective, with a major Phase III clinical trial in untreated metastatic melanoma showing longer median progression free survival for the combination compared to either treatment alone.
Another approach is to combine checkpoint inhibitors with radiotherapy or chemotherapy. The idea here is to use existing treatments to cause tumour cell death and in the process cause an immune response that the checkpoint inhibitors then amplify in some way. It’s an appealing approach but it does depend on using treatments that are ‘immunogenic’ that is they cause an immune response to develop. One of the recurring problems in cancer treatment is the emergence of immune suppression or skewing of the response to pro-tumour responses. Evidence is emerging that a lack of an anti-tumour response is related to the lack of response to the checkpoint inhibitors in some patients.
All of which brings us to consider whether there is a role for some safe and non-toxic treatments which can aid in reversing this cancer-associated immune suppression. Are there ways in which we can kickstart the immune response in ways which synergise with these checkpoint inhibitors?
A number of possibilities spring to mind using some well-known repurposed drugs. The first is cimetidine (Tagamet), one of the first of the blockbuster antacid drugs and with well-documented anti-cancer activities (summarised in the ReDO paper here). Cimetidine has been shown to cause an increase in the number of tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes and to deplete T-reg and MDSC immune-suppressing cells. This makes it an interesting candidate to explore in cancer even without checkpoint inhibitors, but the combination with checkpoint inhibitors would be especially interesting.
Another possibility is to use some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs which have also been shown to have positive effects in cancer immunity. And it’s not just COX-2 inhibitors like celecoxib which are interesting here, there is evidence that diclofenac, which inhibits both COX-1 and COX-2 may have positive effects via its action on the PGE2/IDO pathway. It may well be that the positive effects that have been shown by ketorolac in reducing breast cancer recurrence rates – now the subject of a study in Belgium – are partly immune related.
Finally, there is also the possibility that gut bacteria may have a role. This is a topic I have written about in the past – it is increasingly clear that our gut bacteria have a systemic impact on our immune system. This should be no surprise when you think about it – as a race we have evolved complex relationships with our bacteria, they are more than just along for the ride and are integral to digestion and immunity alike. A recent paper published in the journal Science explored the role of gut bacteria in mice and the different rates of melanoma growth in two different sets of mice. These mice were of the same species but differed in their gut bacteria – and interestingly the tumour growth rates were markedly different.
Putting these two sets of mice into shared cages, so that they cross-colonised each other with their bacteria, abolished the different growth rates. The mice with the faster tumour growth rate now had slower tumour growth rates than the mice with the slower rate. This was further tested by taking the ‘fast’ mice and explicitly transferring bacteria from the ‘slow’ mice into them – with the same outcome. Finally, adding these bacteria to treatment with a checkpoint inhibitor almost abolished the tumour growth. This is a fairly stunning result – it suggests that changing the gut bacteria can make a significant difference to immunotherapy with the latest drugs. And, for those who are interested, the bacteria were from the Bifidobacterium family – often used in live yoghurt.
Allowing the immune system to mount an effective anti-tumour response is almost a holy grail in oncology – perhaps we are finally coming to the point where we can look at a using combination therapies which work together to do exactly that.