ESMO 2O23: Major pathologic response to neoadjuvant pembrolizumab in advanced melanoma trial exceeds 50 percent

27 Oct 2023
ESMO 2O23: Major pathologic response to neoadjuvant pembrolizumab in advanced melanoma trial exceeds 50 percent

In exploratory analyses of results from the SWOG S1801 trial in patients with stage III-IV resectable melanoma, researchers saw a major pathologic response in more than half of surgical specimens taken from patients who had been treated with neoadjuvant (pre-operative) pembrolizumab.

These and other results of the analyses are presented as a proffered paper (Abstract LBA48) at the European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO) Congress 2023 in Madrid, Spain, on Monday, October 23, by Sapna P. Patel, MD, chair of the SWOG melanoma committee and associate professor of melanoma medical oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Patel is principal investigator of the S1801 trial.

“The pathologic responses seen in S1801 highlight the potential for single-drug immunotherapy to achieve results that we know are important for individual patient outcomes, namely the demonstration of a favourable pathologic response after a few doses of treatment,” Patel said. 

“But it is important not to over-interpret the results. The absence of a pathologic response means there is room for improvement, but those patients still likely benefitted from a neoadjuvant approach with immunotherapy where their immune system began priming with tumour in situ than if they had gone to upfront surgery. The goal of a short duration of neoadjuvant immunotherapy is to initiate tumour priming, not necessarily to shrink the tumour (s) or demonstrate a pathologic response. Even in the absence of a radiographic or pathologic response, a patient’s immune system may have a more amplified and diversified response after a few doses of pre-operative immunotherapy, and then the tumour can be resected. Soon, we hope to find regimens that are safe and powerful enough where the extent of surgery may even be reduced or avoided.” 

Primary results for S1801 were reported at last year’s ESMO Congress and were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March 2023. They showed that patients with operable stage IIIB through stage IV melanoma who started immunotherapy before surgery had significantly longer event-free survival times than patients who started immunotherapy after their surgery.

The abstract being presented at ESMO 2023 reports the results of exploratory analyses of response to neoadjuvant treatment evaluated using specimens removed from these patients during surgery. Specimens were submitted for central review on 78 percent of patients who underwent surgery in the neoadjuvant arm. “This is considered a huge success for clinical trial tissue submission in the cooperative group setting,” Patel added. “We are grateful to sites and investigators for their cooperation.”

To assess pathologic response to a treatment, a pathologist examines tissue removed during surgery to see whether it includes any actively growing cancer cells – known as residual viable tumours. If no active cells are seen, the tissue is said to have undergone a pathologic complete response to treatment. If active cancer cells comprise only 1 percent to 10 percent of the tumour bed, it is said to have undergone a pathologic near-complete response. 

“Major pathologic response” is defined as no more than 10 percent residual viable tumour in the examined tissue. It encompasses both the complete response and the near-complete response categories.

It should be cautioned that pathologic response makes assumptions of facts not always in evidence. A pathologist calculates the residual viable tumour (numerator) as a percentage of the total tumour bed (denominator). But the pathologist is not always clear on how large the tumour bed was before initiating neoadjuvant therapy so they are making estimates based on histologic clues, and therefore they could be an under-reading response by reading a smaller tumour bed (denominator). There is also the fact that a microscope’s glass slide can only hold a fraction of a bulky lymph node specimen, causing a mathematic artifact if a 5-cm matted lymph node is sectioned across multiple glass slides. 

A total of 135 patients in S1801 who received neoadjuvant pembrolizumab subsequently underwent surgery. From these patients, 105 specimens were submitted for central review for pathologic response; the vast majority of these were lymph node specimens. All reviews were performed by Victor G. Prieto, MD, PhD, the Ferenc and Phyllis Gyorkey Chair for Research and Education in Pathology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. At the time of review, Prieto had no information on the clinical outcomes associated with each specimen.

“Particularly interesting was the observation that there was different distribution of response to the treatment (amount of necrosis) among different lesions and even different areas in the same patient,” Prieto said. “This suggests the existence of different tumour phenotypes in the same patient.”

The research team also correlated pathologic response with recurrence-free survival (RFS). They found the rate of RFS at 24 months appeared to segregate by pathologic response, and was at 89 percent for patients whose tumour (s) achieved a pathologic complete response.

SWOG S1801 is supported by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), led by the SWOG Cancer Research Network, and conducted by the NIH-funded NCI National Clinical Trials Network (NCTN).

Source: SWOG Cancer Research Network