Phase II study of pembrolizumab in refractory esophageal cancer with correlates of response and survival

Leonie K. de Klerk, Anuj K. Patel, Sarah Derks, Eirini Pectasides, Jeremy Augustin, Mohamed Uduman, Nihal Raman, Fahire G. Akarca, Nadine J. McCleary, James M. Cleary, Douglas A. Rubinson, Jeffrey W. Clark, Bridget Fitzpatrick, Lauren K. Brais, Megan E. Cavanaugh, Amanda J. Rode, Melissa G. Jean, Patrick H. Lizotte, Matthew J. Nazzaro, Mariano SevergniniHui Zheng, Charles S. Fuchs, Peter C. Enzinger, Adam J. Bass

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Background Immune checkpoint inhibitors have revolutionized cancer treatment, but the benefits in refractory patients with esophageal cancer have been modest. Predictors of response as well as new targets for novel therapeutic combinations are needed. In this phase 2 clinical trial, we tested single-agent pembrolizumab in patients with advanced esophageal cancer, who received at least one prior line of therapy. Methods Pembrolizumab 200 mg every 3 weeks was tested in 49 patients with refractory esophageal cancer: 39 with adenocarcinoma and 10 with esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. Major endpoints were radiological response by Immune-related Response Evaluation Criteria In Solid Tumors and survival. Tumor samples were evaluated for programmed cell death ligand 1 (PD-L1) expression, tumor mutational burden (TMB), and immune contexture by both NanoString mRNA expression analysis and flow cytometry. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells and a panel of circulating chemokines were also analyzed. Results The overall response rate (ORR) was 8% (4 of 49 patients; 95% CI 2.3% to 19.6%). Median overall survival (OS) was 5.8 months (95% CI 4.0 to 9.5). ORR and OS were not associated with histology. For PD-L1-positive patients, ORR was 13.3% (95% CI 1.7% to 40.5%) and median OS was 7.9 months (95% CI 4.7 to 15.5). A trend toward improved OS was observed in seven patients with a TMB ≥10 mut/Mb (p=0.086). Tumors with a PD-L1 Combined Positive Score ≥1 showed enrichment of LAG3 (p=0.005) and IDO1 (p=0.04) gene expression. Baseline levels of circulating CXCL10, interleukin 2 (IL2) receptor α (IL2RA) and IL6 were associated with survival: CXCL10 favorably, (HR 0.37, p=0.002 (progression-free survival); HR 0.55, p=0.018 (OS)); IL2RA and IL6 unfavorably (HR 1.57, p=0.020 for IL6 (OS); HR 2.36, p=0.025 for IL2RA (OS)). Conclusions Pembrolizumab monotherapy was modestly effective in refractory esophageal cancer. Circulating CXCL10 at baseline appeared to be a robust predictor of response. Other T cell exhaustion markers are upregulated in PD-L1-positive patients, suggesting that immunotherapy combinations such as anti-LAG3/programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) or anti-IDO1/PD-1 may be of promise in refractory esophageal cancer.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere002472
JournalJournal for Immunotherapy of Cancer
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sept 2021


  • biomarkers
  • cytokines
  • gastrointestinal neoplasms
  • immunotherapy
  • tumor
  • tumor microenvironment

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