ASH 2020 Advances Immunotherapies, Puts Spotlight on Health Disparities

By Mary Ellen Schneider

This year’s annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology (ASH) featured new research on chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy and bispecific T-cell engager (BiTE) molecules, along with trends toward treating cancer patients with immunotherapies earlier in the course of their disease.

The meeting, which was held virtually for the first time, also highlighted studies evaluating the extent and impact of racial and ethnic health disparities in hematology and oncology.

Health Disparities Highlighted

“As part of caring for patients and our citizens, ASH chose to have a significant light shine upon disparities in health care, or differences in outcomes between different groups of our patients,” Chancellor Donald, MD, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans, told OBR.

Bringing attention to disparities in outcomes and access offers the potential for “immediate improvement in outcomes for those persons without a new diagnostic test, or without a new drug,” Dr. Donald said.

The ASH plenary session put the spotlight on poor treatment outcomes for Black patients younger than 60 years with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). In a study that looked both at Surveillance Epidemiology End Results (SEER) data and molecular features by race, researchers found that younger Black patients had a 27% higher likelihood of death than white patients. They also discovered that Black patients had a lower frequency of prognostically favorable NPM1 mutations (Abstract 6).

Another study that focused on health disparities identified a greater risk for cancer-associated thrombosis among Black patients, compared with their white counterparts. These disparities were especially prominent when the researchers looked only at pulmonary embolism (Abstract 203).

What is driving the disparities in cancer-associated thrombosis? The researchers acknowledged possible contributions from underlying biological traits. But they also pointed to the contribution of systemic racism, access to care, and the severity of underlying comorbidities.

“Since current risk prediction models for cancer-associated thrombosis do not include race and ethnicity as parameters, future studies should examine if incorporating these factors can improve predictive value,” said Alisa S. Wolberg, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of the ASH scientific program co-chairs. Dr. Wolberg highlighted the study as part her “Best of ASH” presentation.

Other health disparities research presented at this year’s ASH included a study exploring the impact of living in a socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood for Black and Hispanic people with AML. Researchers found that this “structural violence” led to worse survival for minority patients in the study (Abstract 217).

Latest Data in CAR T-Cell Therapy, BiTEs  

The ASH annual meeting also included a variety of studies on CAR T-cell therapy, from clinical trials to real-world data.

“What strikes me now is that in the CD19 CAR T-cell space, you’re getting much more robust real-world data,” Catherine Bollard, MD, director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., and a professor of pediatrics and immunology at George Washington University, told OBR.

Among the noteworthy research, Dr. Bollard pointed to a real-world study that investigated the tumor-specific factors driving inherent or acquired resistance to CAR T cells in large B-cell lymphoma (Abstract 556). The study, led by researchers at Stanford University, identified CD58 status as an important biomarker for durable response to CAR T cells in large B-cell lymphoma.

This type of real-world data will be even more important as CAR T-cell therapy moves earlier in the treatment of disease, Dr. Bollard said.

“As we continue to expand the reach of new targeted therapies, it is imperative that we deeply study our patients to determine the mechanisms that underscore success, and perhaps even more importantly, failure,” said Leslie S. Kean, MD, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and one of the ASH scientific program co-chairs. She highlighted Abstract 556 as part of her “Best of ASH” presentation.

Dr. Kean also highlighted findings from the primary analysis of the phase 2, Zuma-5 trial, which evaluated axicabtagene ciloleucel (axi-cel) in patients with follicular and marginal zone lymphoma (Abstract 700), noting that one of themes of the ASH meeting was an expansion of cellular therapies beyond their initial indications.

“The maturation of the field is evidenced by multiple commercial CARs now being investigated in these more indolent lymphoma patients,” Dr. Kean said.

Dr. Kean also pointed to an early study looking at the combination of the CAR T product lisocabtagene maraleucel (liso-cel) with the BTK inhibitor ibrutinib for the treatment of patients with relapsed/refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). In the phase 1 TRANSCEND CLL 004 study, researchers found promising efficacy and a manageable safety profile with the combination (Abstract 544).

Other immunotherapy studies presented at ASH were focused on the use of these treatments earlier in the course of therapy.

Dr. Kean pointed to a phase 3 trial in children with high-risk first relapse B-cell precursor acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) that assessed the BiTE molecule blinatumomab, compared with high-risk consolidation chemotherapy before allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplant. Blinatumomab monotherapy achieved significantly better event-free survival, causing the trial’s data monitoring committee to recommend early termination of enrollment due to benefit (Abstract 268).

Another study focused on treatment with a BiTE molecule earlier in the course of therapy was a phase 2 study that examined the use of a hyper-CVAD chemotherapy regimen with sequential blinatumomab in adults with newly diagnosed Philadelphia chromosome-negative B-cell ALL (Abstract 464). The researchers found that the combination was effective in front-line treatment, with a high complete response rate and high percentage of patients achieving measurable residual disease negativity.

Potential New Treatments in Multiple Myeloma

Dr. Kean also highlighted two clinical studies of antibody-based and CAR T-cell therapies for the treatment of multiple myeloma.

The phase 1b/2 CARTITUDE-1 study looked at ciltacabtagene autoleucel (cilta-cel), a B-cell maturation antigen-directed CAR T-cell therapy, in the treatment of relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma (Abstract 177). Researchers reported an encouraging progression-free survival profile of at least a year. The safety and efficacy data indicate that larger studies of this agent are warranted, Dr. Kean said.

Along with CAR T-cell advances, Dr. Kean pointed to a new antibody-based therapy with potential in relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma. A phase 1, first-in-human study, evaluated talquetamab, a first-in-class bispecific antibody that binds to the G Protein-Coupled Receptor Family C Group 5 Member D (GPRC5D) and CD3 (Abstract 290). Researchers reported a manageable safety profile for the antibody treatment.

“This study suggests that there continue to be ‘new kids on the block’ for these otherwise difficult-to-treat patients,” Dr. Kean said.

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