The question about the efficacy of checkpoint inhibitors in patients who discontinue treatment due to irAEs has been raised, as one hypothesis suggests that such toxicities may also indicate that the antitumor immune response has been activated. In a retrospective pooled analysis of phase 2 and 3 trials where patients received combination therapy with ipilimumab and nivolumab and discontinued therapy during the induction phase due to irAEs, outcomes did not appear to be inferior. Median PFS was 8.4 months in those who discontinued therapy compared to 10.8 months in those who continued therapy, but this did not reach statistical significance. Median OS had not been reached in either group and ORR was actually higher in those who discontinued due to adverse events (58.3% vs 50.2%). While this retrospective analysis needs to be validated, it does suggest that patients likely derive antitumor benefit from immunotherapy even if they have to discontinue therapy due to irAEs. Of note, patients in this analysis were not trialed on nivolumab monotherapy after receiving immunosuppressive treatment for toxicity related to combination therapy, which has since been deemed a reasonable treatment option.34
Molecularly Targeted Therapy for Metastatic Melanoma
As previously mentioned, the MAPK pathway is frequently altered in metastatic melanoma and thus serves as a target for therapy. Mutations in BRAF can cause constitutive activation of the protein’s kinase function, which subsequently phosphorylates/activates MEK in the absence of extracellular growth signals and causes increased cellular proliferation. For the roughly half of patients diagnosed with metastatic melanoma who harbor a BRAF V600 mutation, molecularly targeted therapy with BRAF/MEK inhibitors has emerged as a standard of care treatment option. As such, all patients with advanced disease should be tested for BRAF mutations.
After early phase 1 studies of the BRAF inhibitor vemurafenib demonstrated successful inhibition of mutated BRAF,35 subsequent studies confirmed the benefit of BRAF targeted therapy. In the phase 3 randomized controlled BRIM-3 trial comparing vemurafenib with dacarbazine for treatment of 675 patients with previously untreated metastatic melanoma positive for a BRAF V600E mutation, the vemurafenib group had superior ORR and 6-month OS during the first analysis.36 In a subsequent analysis, median PFS and median OS were also superior with vemurafenib compared to dacarbazine, as vemurafenib had a median OS of 13.6 months compared to 9.7 months with dacarbazine (HR, 0.70; P = 0.0008).37 Dabrafenib was the next BRAF inhibitor to demonstrate clinical efficacy with superior PFS compared to dacarbazine.38
Despite tumor shrinkage in the majority of patients, the development of resistance to therapy was an issue early on. The development of acquired resistance emerged as a heterogeneous process, though many of the identified resistance mechanisms involved reactivation of the MAPK pathway.39 A phase 3 trial of 322 patients with metastatic melanoma comparing the MEK inhibitor trametinib as monotherapy against chemotherapy demonstrated a modest improvement in both median PFS and OS.40 As a result, subsequent efforts focused on a strategy of concurrent MEK inhibition as a means to overcome resistance to molecularly targeted monotherapy
At least 4 large phase 3 randomized controlled trials of combination therapy with BRAF plus MEK inhibitors showed an improved ORR, PFS, and OS when compared to BRAF inhibition alone. The COMBI-d trial comparing dabrafenib plus trametinib versus dabrafenib alone was the first to demonstrate the superiority of combined BRAF/MEK inhibition and made combination therapy the current standard of care for patients with metastatic melanoma and a BRAF V600 mutation. In the final analysis of this trial, 3-year PFS was 22% with combination therapy compared to 12% with dabrafenib alone, and 3-year OS was 44% compared to 32%.8,41,42 A second trial with the combination of dabrafenib and trametinib (COMBI-V) also demonstrated superior efficacy when compared to single-agent vemurafenib without increased toxicity.43 Subsequently, the combination of vemurafenib with MEK inhibitor cobimetinib demonstrated superiority compared to vemurafenib alone,44 followed by the newest combination encorafenib (BRAF inhibitor) and binimetinib (MEK inhibitor) proving superior to either vemurafenib or encorafenib alone.45,46