Mechanistic overview of immune checkpoints to support the rational design of their combinations in cancer immunotherapy

Checkpoint receptor blockers, known to act by blocking the pathways that inhibit immune cell activation and stimulate immune responses against tumor cells, have been immensely successful in the treatment of cancer. Among several checkpoint receptors of immune cells, cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated protein-4 (CTLA-4), programmed cell death protein-1 (PD-1), T-cell immunoglobulin and ITIM domain (TIGIT), T-cell immunoglobulin-3 (TIM-3) and lymphocyte activation gene 3 (LAG-3) are the most commonly targeted checkpoints for cancer immunotherapy. Six drugs including one CTLA-4 blocker (ipilimumab), two PD-1 blockers (nivolumab and pembrolizumab), and three PD-L1 blockers (atezolizumab, avelumab and durvalumab) are approved for the treatment of different types of cancers including both solid tumors such as melanoma, lung cancer, head and neck cancer, bladder cancer and Merkel cell cancer as well as hematological tumors such as classic Hogdkins lymphoma. The main problem with checkpoint blockers is that only a fraction of patients respond to the therapy. Insufficient immune activation is considered as one of the main reason for low response rates and combination of checkpoint blockers has been proposed to increase the response rates. The combination of checkpoint blockers was successful in melanoma but had significant adverse events. A combination that is selected based on the mechanistic differences between checkpoints and the differences in expression of checkpoints and their ligands in the tumor microenvironment (TME) could have a synergistic effect in a given cancer subtype and also have a manageable safety profile. This review aims to help in design of optimal checkpoint blocker combinations by discussing the mechanistic details and outlining the subtle differences between major checkpoints targeted for cancer immunotherapy.

Annals of oncology : official journal of the European Society for Medical Oncology. 2017 Oct 24 [Epub ahead of print]

A Rotte, J Y Jin, V Lemaire

Department of Clinical Pharmacology, Genentech Research and Early Development, South San Francisco, California, USA.

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