Conference Coverage

Immunotherapy for ALL: Roles emerge in R/R disease, MRD+ disease



Immunotherapy is a rising star among emerging therapies for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), according to Patrick A. Brown, MD.

“Most of the emerging therapies in ALL are immunotherapies that have really made an impact in the relapsed and refractory setting,” he said during a presentation at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network Hematologic Malignancies Annual Congress. “Another very exciting development is that these immunotherapies are now demonstrating efficacy and increased tolerability over chemotherapy in the minimal residual disease (MRD)-positive setting up front.”

Dr. Brown, director of the pediatric leukemia program at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, focused on blinatumomab, inotuzumab, and chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy for ALL, and explained the rationale for their use.

Why immunotherapy?

“It turns out that in normal B cell development there are a number of proteins that are expressed on the surface of B cells and these same proteins are expressed on the surface of many B-cell malignancies,” he said, noting that ALL is “probably the least differentiated of the B-lineage malignancies,” but the vast majority of ALL cases will express CD19 and CD22, and – in adults more often than pediatric patients – CD20.

These antigens make good targets for ALL therapy because they aren’t expressed on bone marrow stem cells or other tissues in the body.

“They really are specific for B cells,” he said, explaining that inotuzumab, a CD22 antibody drug conjugate (ADC), and blinatumomab, a bi-specific T cell-engaging antibody (BiTE) that targets CD19, are antibody-based immunotherapies, whereas CAR T-cell therapies are a separate category that can be single- or multi-antigen targeted.

Inotuzumab, blinatumomab, and CAR T cells

Inotuzumab targets the CD22 immunotoxin antigen via a T-cell independent process and is delivered as a once-weekly 1-hour infusion. It is approved for adult relapsed/refractory B-ALL. Blinatumomab binds CD19 on the surface of the tumor cells and CD3 on the surface of any T cell in the vicinity of the tumor cell.

“The recognition that blinatumomab allows between the tumor cell and the T cell is independent of the specificity of the T-cell receptor. It also does not require [major histocompatibility complex] class 1 or peptide antigens on the surface of the T cell,” he said, adding that it does, however, rely on a functional endogenous cytotoxic T-cell response, unlike inotuzumab. “It’s also very difficult technically to give because it’s given as a 28-day continuous IV infusion with bag changes required every 4-7 days.”

Blinatumomab is approved for adult and pediatric Philadelphia chromosome-negative relapsed/refractory B-cell precursor ALL and MRD-positive B-cell precursor ALL.

CAR T-cell therapy, an autologous immunotherapy, is “really kind of the pinnacle of technological advances in immunotherapy in that it combine three different modalities into one: cellular therapy, gene therapy, and immunotherapy,” he said, noting that the process of genetically engineering T cells to express a CAR is complex and costly and access is limited, but expanding with about 90 centers in the U.S. now providing CAR T-cell therapy.

Response rates with each of these therapies represent a paradigm shift in the relapsed/refractory ALL setting, Dr. Brown said.

Studies have shown complete remission (CR) and minimum residual disease (MRD)-negative CR rates of 81% and 78%, respectively, with inotuzumab, and 43% and 33%, respectively, with blinatumomab.

“This depth of remission was really not seen with prior salvage therapies,” he noted, but added that neither has shown significant durable improvement in overall survival (OS) rates.

CAR T-cell therapy, however, has the highest response rates, with tisagenlecleucel – which targets CD19 and was the first CAR T-cell therapy approved for refractory or second or greater relapse in patients up to age 26 years – showing 81% CR and MRD-negative CR rates and providing a durable survival advantage without subsequent therapy in 40-50% of patients.

“So CAR T cells can represent definitive therapy in a subset of patients,” Dr. Brown said. “One thing we’re struggling with is to be able to predict which patients those are, and there are some emerging biomarkers that may help us with that, but as of now it’s very difficult to predict which patients, when you’re treating them, are going to be in [that group].”


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