Conference Coverage

Novel treatments under study for chronic graft-versus-host disease in allo-HCT



Physicians are gaining a greater understanding of the pathophysiology of chronic graft-versus-host disease (cGVHD) in allo-hematopoietic cell transplantation (allo-HCT), a hematologist/oncologist told colleagues, and novel treatments are being tested.

However, options remain limited. There’s only one Food and Drug Administration–approved therapy for cGVHD that’s failed one or more treatments, and clinical trials remain a crucial option in some cases, said Mary E.D. Flowers, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Washington’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, in a presentation at the virtual Acute Leukemia Forum of Hemedicus.

According to Dr. Flowers, cGVHD – a product of a graft’s “immunological assault” against the person receiving a transplant – occurs in 40% of patients within a year after allo-HCT. The disorder “is associated with a poor quality of life, disability, and increased mortality after allo-transplantation,” she said. “It’s a syndrome that can be inflammatory and fibrotic. It involves several organs – the skin, the mouth, the eyes, the lungs, the GI tract.”

The median length of treatment after peripheral blood stem cell transplant is 3.5 years, Dr. Flowers said. Seven years after treatment, 10% of those who are alive – and have avoided relapse – will still need treatment. “Corticosteroids remain the first-line [treatment], at 0.5-1.0 [mg/kg], but they do not control at least 40% of the patients with cGVHD.”

In regard to pathophysiology, she highlighted a 2017 report that presented findings about the pathophysiology of cGVHD. The findings, the report authors wrote, “have yielded a raft of potential new therapeutics, centered on naive T-cell depletion, interleukin-17/21 inhibition, kinase inhibition, regulatory T-cell restoration, and CSF-1 inhibition.”

For now, no agents other than corticosteroids have shown benefit in cGVHD as initial therapy, Dr. Flowers said. In fact, several trials closed early from lack of benefit. But trials continue, she said: Results are pending for a completed phase 3 trial of ibrutinib, a Bruton tyrosine kinase inhibitor, plus steroids for initial treatment of cGVHD. Nearly 500 patients were enrolled, she said. And there’s an ongoing phase 2/3 trial of itacitinib, a Janus kinase 1 inhibitor plus steroids as initial treatment.

Dr. Flowers highlighted the case of a patient with moderate cGVHD. The patient was treated with infection prophylaxis, supportive care for oral and eyes manifestations, and prednisone 0.5 mg/kg (at a lower dose because of diabetes) plus a substitution of tacrolimus with sirolimus, a calcineurin inhibitor.

Why sirolimus? At this early point in progression, she said, the patient didn’t necessarily need systemwide chemo-suppression, and calcineurin inhibitors can be “quite effective” in management of inflammation in the liver. “It would be a completely different story once the patient develops severe cGVHR.” In that case, she said, calcineurin inhibitors wouldn’t be appropriate.

The patient’s status deteriorated to severe cGVHD, and sirolimus was replaced with ibrutinib. Other drugs were added to prevent infection and treat bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome.

In general, “the goal of the treatment is get adequate control of clinical manifestations and prevent more severe disease from developing,” Dr. Flowers said.

In response to a question about polypharmacy in patient with advanced disease – “we tend not to peel those drugs off” – Dr. Flowers said she does see new patients who appear to be taking too many medications. “They are on five drugs, and I say, ‘What are we doing?’ ”

Quite often, Dr. Flowers said, she doesn’t add therapies to existing ones but instead looks for substitutes. “A clinical lesson that I feel that I learned over time is: Ask your questions first. What would you like to see in 3 months? Or 6 months? Before you just add another therapy, do you really know what the trajectory of a disease might be?”

Dr. Flowers discloses research support (Pharmacyclics, Incyte), speaker honorarium (Janssen, Johnson & Johnson, Astellas, Mallinckrodt), and consulting relationships (Pharmacyclics, CSL Behring, Fresenius Kabi).

The Acute Leukemia Forum is held by Hemedicus, which is owned by the same company as this news organization.

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