Pembrolizumab (Pembro), an anti-PD-1 immune checkpoint inhibitor, has been approved for the treatment of a variety of cancers including melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, and urothelial carcinoma. Pembro was recently evaluated in HER2- breast cancer patients in the neoadjuvant I-SPY 2 TRIAL and graduated in the triple negative (TN), HR+HER2-, and HER2- signatures. HER2- patients were randomized to receive Pembro+paclitaxel followed by doxorubicin/cyclophosphamide (P+T -> AC) vs. T -> AC. We and others have shown that TN breast cancers tend to have high numbers of immune infiltrates, including T cells and tumor associated macrophages (TAMs). We evaluated expression signatures representing 14 immune cell types (TILs, T cells, CD8 T cells, exhausted T cells, Th1, Tregs, cytotoxic cells, NK, NK CD56dim, dendritic cells, mast cells, B cells, macrophages, and neutrophils) as specific predictors of response to Pembro.
Data from 248 patients (Pembro: 69; controls: 179) were available. Pre-treatment biopsies were assayed using Agilent gene expression arrays. Signature scores are calculated by averaging cell type specific genes. All I-SPY 2 qualifying biomarker analyses follow a pre-specified analysis plan. We used logistic modeling to assess biomarker performance. A biomarker is considered a specific predictor of Pembro response if it associates with response in the Pembro arm but not the control arm, and if the biomarker x treatment interaction is significant (likelihood ratio test, p<0.05). This analysis is also performed adjusting for HR status as covariates, and within receptor subsets. For successful biomarkers, we use Bayesian modeling to estimate the pCR rates of 'predicted sensitive' patients in each arm. Our statistics are descriptive rather than inferential and do not adjust for multiplicities of other biomarkers outside this study.
10 out of the 14 cell-type signatures tested are associated with response in the Pembro arm. Higher expression levels of 9 of these cell-type signatures are associated with higher pCR rates (T cells, exhausted T cells, Th1, cytotoxic cells, NK, NK CD56dim, dendritic cells, B cells, and macrophages), whereas higher mast cell signature expression is associated with non-pCR. Interestingly, many of these same signatures also associate or trend towards association with response in the control arm; and in a model adjusting for HR status, only 3 of these signatures (Th1, B cells and dendritic cells) show significant interaction with treatment. Within the whole population and the TN subtype, the dendritic cell signature is the strongest predictor of specific response to Pembro (OR/1SD: 4.04 and 4.4, LR p < 0.001 overall and in TN). Although other immune signatures (T cells, exhausted T cells, NK, and macrophages) also associate with response in the Pembro arm in the TN subtype, only the dendritic cell and Th1 signatures have a significant interaction with treatment. In contrast, in the HR+HER2- subtype, only 3 signatures (Th1, B cells, and mast cells) associate with response to Pembro; but none of these signatures have significant interaction with treatment. Of note, in both the Pembro and control arms, HR+HER2- patients with higher average mast cell marker expression have lower pCR rates (OR/1SD: 0.33 and 0.51, LRp: 0.006 and 0.04 in Pembro and control arm).
As expected, multiple immune cell expression signatures are predictive of response in the Pembro arm; but only dendritic cells and Th1 cells are specific to Pembro in both the population as a whole and the TN subtype. Interestingly, the presence of mast cells may impede response, especially in HR+HER2- patients. Correlation of these signatures with multiplex-IF immune markers is pending.