2023 Research Round Up: Lung Cancer

September 28, 2023
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The theme of the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting was “Partnering With Patients: The Cornerstone of Cancer Care and Research.” From June 2 to 6 in Chicago, Illinois, and online, cancer researchers and clinicians from around the world gathered to discuss the latest cancer research and how to ensure that all people receive the cancer care they need.

In the Research Round Up series, members of the Cancer.Net Editorial Board discuss the most exciting and practice-changing research in their field presented at the meeting and explain what it means for people with cancer. In today’s episode, our guests will discuss new research advances in treating non-small cell lung cancer, small cell lung cancer, and mesothelioma. 



ASCO: You’re listening to a podcast from Cancer.Net. This cancer information website is produced by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, known as ASCO, the voice of the world's oncology professionals.

The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. Guests’ statements on this podcast do not express the opinions of ASCO. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement. Cancer research discussed in this podcast is ongoing, so data described here may change as research progresses.

The theme of the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting was “Partnering With Patients: The Cornerstone of Cancer Care and Research.” From June 2 to 6 in Chicago, Illinois, and online, cancer researchers and clinicians from around the world gathered to discuss the latest cancer research and how to ensure that all people receive the cancer care they need.

In the Research Round Up series, members of the Cancer.Net Editorial Board discuss the most exciting and practice-changing research in their field presented at the meeting and explain what it means for people with cancer. In today’s episode, our guests will discuss new research advances in treating non-small cell lung cancer, small cell lung cancer, and mesothelioma. 

Dr. Charu Aggarwal is the Leslye Heisler Associate Professor of Medicine in the Hematology-Oncology Division at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is also the 2023 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Lung Cancer.

Dr. Melina Marmarelis is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, the Medical Director of the Penn Medicine Mesothelioma Program, and the co-director of the Molecular Tumor Board at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the 2023 Cancer.Net Specialty Editor for Mesothelioma.

Dr. Kristin Higgins is a radiation oncologist, Professor and Vice Chair in Clinical Research in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and medical director of radiation oncology of The Emory Clinic at Winship Cancer Institute's Clifton campus location. She is also a 2023 Cancer.Net Advisory Panelist for Lung Cancer.

You can view disclosures for Dr. Aggarwal, Dr. Marmarelis, and Dr. Higgins at Cancer.Net.

Dr. Aggarwal: Hello and welcome to this Cancer.Net Research Round Up podcast. Today, we will be talking about the latest research from the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology from June 2023, and I'm joined today by 2 experts in the field of lung cancer. Before I introduce them, I'd like to introduce myself. I'm Dr. Charu Aggarwal. I'm an associate professor for lung cancer excellence at the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center. I'd now like to introduce Dr. Melina Marmarelis.

Dr. Marmarelis: Hi, so happy to be here. I'm Melina Marmarelis. I'm an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the medical director of the Penn mesothelioma program.

Dr. Aggarwal: And Dr. Kristin Higgins.

Dr. Higgins: Hi, everyone. I'm Kristin Higgins. I am a thoracic radiation oncologist at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. I'm a professor and vice chair for clinical research for radiation oncology.

Dr. Aggarwal: Fantastic. So today, we'll talk about relevant research as it applies to practical implications in the clinic for practitioners, but most importantly, patients with lung cancer. I'd like to start off by discussing 2 key studies, and I would love for perspectives from our faculty here. The first study I want to highlight is the ADAURA trial. This is a trial that has already sort of changed practice in most recent years when the study was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2020, but we have new updates on this study as of 2023. So, in brief, this was a study that looked at the value of administering an oral pill called osimertinib that is a tyrosine kinase inhibitor against the EGFR, or the epidermal growth factor receptor, in patients with non-small cell lung cancer.

We know that non-small cell lung cancer is quite a heterogeneous disease with some subsets of patients having mutations that may render them increasingly sensitive to the effects of these tyrosine kinase inhibitors. In fact, these pills have been used in the metastatic setting for several years based on an improvement in overall survival. What the ADAURA study tried to do was ask the question if this pill would add an incremental advantage after receiving curative-intent surgical resection in those with early-stage lung cancer. So this study enrolled patients with stage IB to IIIA non-small cell lung cancer after surgical resection and focused only on those patients that had sensitizing EGFR mutations with EGFR exon 19 deletion or L858R mutations. Patients could receive chemotherapy after having the surgery and then were basically randomized into 2 groups, one of whom received osimertinib at a dose of 80 milligrams once daily for a total of 3 years. Patients were followed up for recurrence.

We already know from the earlier results that patients who received osimertinib had a better chance of delaying the recurrence of disease. However, what we found at the Annual Meeting this year is that the administration of this osimertinib also improved overall survival, which is really what we all look for in the oncology world. If you're administering a therapy, especially for a long duration, we want to be able to see a survival benefit, and that's what we saw. In fact, in patients who received osimertinib, there was a 49% less likelihood of dying from lung cancer compared to those who did not receive osimertinib. This, I think, is practice-affirming. It may not be practice-changing because some of the practitioners started using osimertinib after its FDA approval in December of 2020, but I think it just confirms our practice as it delivers an overall survival advantage in these patients. One thing that's increasingly important is to identify patients who have this mutation, so now we have efforts underway locally as well as nationally to perform molecular genotyping on all patients with lung cancer so that we can adequately and appropriately treat those with early-stage lung cancer following curative resection or following surgery. Melina and Kristin, what are your thoughts?

Dr. Marmarelis: Well, I think these results are really important because it did, as you say, affirm kind of what we're already doing, but I think the most convincing part of this for me is the prevention of spread of disease to the brain. This is not comparing osimertinib after surgery versus osimertinib ever, which I think is a difficult part about interpreting this trial. But I think the fact that it prevented disease from going to the brain is really meaningful to everyone, to patients, to the physicians that are caring for them, so I think that's a really important endpoint.

Dr. Higgins: I agree with Melina. I think this is really exciting for our patients. It's exciting to have more treatment options for early-stage lung cancer. I think patients that are diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer are highly motivated to do everything they can to improve their likelihood of being cured. So I tend to have a lot of conversations about side effects and toxicities with patients that have questions and are sort of wondering how it will affect their quality of life, and of course, that is an important piece of it because patients that do have curable lung cancer are probably starting off with a better overall quality of life, but I think generally speaking, our patients have tolerated it well. I'm also kind of excited from a radiation oncology point of view. We treat patients with stereotactic body radiation therapy [SBRT] that are medically inoperable. And we have another trial with a cohort looking at osimertinib for those patients that have EGFR mutations, too, and that's ongoing, again, applying the same concept of trying to really use these SBRTs that work really well in the advanced setting, moving them into earlier stages of disease to help us care for more patients. So overall, I think it's really exciting, and I think it's a huge win for the clinical research community.

Dr. Aggarwal: Well, that's wonderful. And I think this certainly advances the field as this is the first targeted therapy approved for patients with early-stage non-small cell lung cancer. I should add that AstraZeneca, the company that makes this drug, has provided institutional research funding to my institution, and I also serve as an advisor to them, but I was not involved personally in the research of this clinical trial.

I'd like to move on but stay within the field of early-stage lung cancer and talk about another study called the KEYNOTE-671 study, and this is important because it really applies the idea of using immunotherapy before and after surgical resection in patients with early-stage lung cancer. Just to give a little bit of background to our listeners, we now have 3 approvals for the use of immunotherapy in patients with early-stage lung cancer. Two of those are in the adjuvant setting, meaning that if a patient undergoes surgical resection or surgery for early-stage lung cancer, they can receive either atezolizumab or pembrolizumab following that surgery, and that has been shown to improve outcomes in terms of reducing the chances of recurrence.

We also have another approval, which is the third approval in early-stage lung cancer, where 3 cycles of chemotherapy and immunotherapy are administered prior to surgery, also called as the neoadjuvant chemo-immunotherapy approach. This drug that has been approved in combination with chemotherapy is nivolumab, and this approval came from a clinical trial called CheckMate 816 that showed both that patients who received this neoadjuvant chemo-immunotherapy approach had a higher proportion of patients who had complete response or pathologic complete response in their tumors at the time of surgery and also showed that the chances of the disease coming back after surgical resection was much lower amongst those that had received this intervention.

The current study, the KEYNOTE-671 study, builds upon this concept and adds both a before-surgery intervention as well as an after-surgery intervention. So what this study did was it enrolled patients with early-stage, stage II to IIIB non-small cell lung cancer, and patients in the intervention arm received 4 cycles of chemotherapy in combination with pembrolizumab, underwent surgery, and then received immunotherapy with pembrolizumab for up to 13 cycles. Patients in the control arm received only chemotherapy prior to surgery and then placebo for up to 13 cycles after. This was a large study with about 786 patients randomized, and what we found was that those patients that received the intervention had a much higher likelihood of remaining disease-free or event-free following surgical resection as well as in the early analysis, an improvement in overall survival with about a 27% reduction in the risk of death. So I do think that this is the first study that shows us that use of both neoadjuvant as well as adjuvant. So sort of this perioperative approach of using immunotherapy before and after surgical resection can actually lead to improved outcomes. This is ultimately what we want for our patients, improvement in overall survival, improvement in cure rates, etc. The study has been silent on the use of radiation therapy, although it has gone into details in terms of the kinds of surgery that was done. Kristin, what are your views about this?

Dr. Higgins: I think postoperative radiation after resection for non-small cell lung cancer has sort of started to fall out of favor because of the Lung ART trial that was published in Europe, a randomized phase III trial that showed no differences in disease-free survival or overall survival. And that's not to say that there aren't more study questions on ways to give it safer and ways to incorporate radiation in with the chemo-IO approach, and there are some novel ways to do that, and we're going to see some data presented at the World Lung Cancer Conference looking at some of those novel approaches. But standardly, when patients receive neoadjuvant chemo-immunotherapy followed by surgery, we typically would not offer radiation. There are instances, though, when patients have positive margins, for example, and in that situation, it's sort of a discussion on a case-by-case basis. But ideally, we're hoping that most of these patients that go to surgery are able to get a complete resection, and that's really the key component of the decision-making for deciding if patients are eligible for this approach.

Dr. Aggarwal: I agree. Melina, any additional thoughts on this trial?

Dr. Marmarelis: I think it's an exciting trial for the reasons that you mentioned. I think it does bring up a number of questions about whether both neoadjuvant and adjuvant immunotherapy are needed. I tend to like the idea of having immunotherapy present when the tumor is present before surgery, so I like kind of having that on board, but I think we still don't know which is more important.

Dr. Aggarwal: So it certainly raises many more questions, which hopefully will be answered in the future. KEYNOTE-671 trial was conducted by Merck that produces the drug Keytruda, or pembrolizumab. We have received institutional research funding for other trials. I was not personally involved in this clinical trial. I do serve as an advisor for Merck. I think we'll bring you more research from the ASCO Annual Meeting. And I'll turn it over to Dr. Marmarelis to discuss some more exciting research.

Dr. Marmarelis: Thanks, Charu. So perhaps it's not surprising that one of the exciting things I picked from ASCO has to do with mesothelioma. And I just want to put into context a little bit about why this trial was important. This is IND227. It was a cooperative group trial done across Canada, France, and Italy, and this was chemotherapy plus or minus pembrolizumab in patients with pleural mesothelioma that did not undergo surgery. So this was their first treatment, and they were not undergoing surgery. And the reason this trial was important is that in the last few years, we had results from CheckMate 743, which was looking at IPI/NIVO, so a combination of immunotherapies versus chemotherapy. And there was an improvement in survival for those that received double immunotherapy, and that improvement was most pronounced in the non-epithelioid population, which is actually a smaller subset of pleural mesotheliomas.

And so as we've seen in the lung when we look at immunotherapy versus chemo, it raises the question of whether combination immunotherapy plus chemotherapy would actually be better for all and, in particular, for all histologies in pleural mesothelioma. So this was looking at that concept. It took the standard chemotherapy, carboplatin-pemetrexed or cisplatin-pemetrexed, and then combined it with one immunotherapy, so slightly less than the combo immunotherapy seen in CheckMate 743, and that was pembrolizumab.

And what they saw was that there was a small overall survival improvement in the group that got pembrolizumab. Again, that was most pronounced in patients in the non-epithelioid group, so those with sarcomatoid or biphasic histology. And this is really a prelude to several other trials that are coming out in mesothelioma, namely the DREAM3R trial, which is looking at chemotherapy plus or minus durvalumab. That control arm also includes IPI/NIVO, so that will be really important to be able to compare those, and then also the BEAT-meso trial, which is looking at chemotherapy-immunotherapy but also with an anti-VEGF agent, bevacizumab. So I think this was an important trial. It's a little bit of proof of concept, but there's still a lot that we're looking forward to. It's not quite practice-changing in the clinic, although I think it's certainly an option that people are using, but I'm looking for more data going forward.

Dr. Aggarwal: It's incredible to see how far we've come in mesothelioma within the last decade. We are introducing immunotherapy. We're introducing novel agents in the first-line setting.

Dr. Marmarelis: The other trial that I was interested in was KEYNOTE-789, which is looking also at patients with EGFR mutations and those that had the original osimertinib as their first-line treatment or another tyrosine kinase inhibitor and then had disease progression on that TKI. And this is an area of huge need. We have patients that do really well on targeted therapies, and then they have disease progression, and we're looking for additional targeted options, but we're also looking for effective chemotherapy options. And one of the questions that has risen from this is whether there's a role for immunotherapy. We know that immunotherapy alone in patients with EGFR mutations is not very effective when you look at a broad population, but in combination with chemotherapy, it's possible that it can add some benefit. So this trial looked at those that had EGFR mutations, had disease progression after a targeted therapy, and then it randomized them to chemotherapy plus or minus pembrolizumab, so chemotherapy plus or minus immunotherapy, and interestingly, it had no difference in the progression-free survival or the overall survival. So the 2 arms were really similar in terms of outcomes. There was also no difference in the overall response rates of the amount that the drug actually shrinks the tumor. So it really doesn't look like immunotherapy is adding much to chemotherapy for these patients. I think we still need to look a little bit closer because there are probably some patients with EGFR mutations that could benefit from immunotherapy, but we're really not very good at identifying those.

One of the questions that comes up in this space is whether to add anti-VEGF treatment in addition to chemotherapy and immunotherapy. So there are some upcoming trials looking at that.

Dr. Aggarwal: I think this was a trial that was actually very important and again, practice-affirming that this idea of continuing chemotherapy without adding immunotherapy, patients are not losing much. In fact, they're not gaining anything by adding immunotherapy as shown in this clinical trial. I think continuing immunotherapy, so continuing osimertinib, may be important in this setting also because we know that osimertinib can cross the blood-brain barrier. It can provide that CNS [central nervous system] protection.

Dr. Marmarelis: Yeah, I think that's a great point that the comparison here is not chemotherapy plus osimertinib. It's chemotherapy alone. So I agree that the control arm is not quite what some of us do. I agree. I do the same as you do. I also just want to mention that the KEYNOTE trial and the previous trial about mesothelioma used pembrolizumab, which is made by Merck. We have received institutional funding, and I've served as an advisor as well as received honorarium from Merck.


Dr. Aggarwal: Melina, those were 2 very important studies and certainly, I think, answer some very relevant questions in clinic in the management of patients with EGFR-mutant lung cancer, for example. And then I think we look forward to more practice-changing data in mesothelioma. Kristin, I would love to hear research from ASCO from you. What caught your interest?

Dr. Higgins: So I have a special interest in small cell lung cancer. And I think there was one important small cell lung cancer trial that I wanted to review with everyone. It was SWOG S1929. And SWOG is the Southwest Oncology Group, and it's a cooperative group that conducts clinical trials in cancer funded by the National Cancer Institute. And this is a randomized phase II trial of atezolizumab and chemotherapy followed by randomization to continuing the maintenance of atezolizumab with a PARP inhibitor. Now, we know from prior data that PARP inhibition is attractive for small cell lung cancer because PARP is expressed frequently in small cell lung cancer, and there is a biomarker called Schlafen-11 that preclinical data and prior data has shown can predict response to PARP inhibition. And this trial was sort of a proof-of-concept trial, a small, randomized phase II trial testing whether or not that Schlafen-11 biomarker could be used to direct therapy. Now, in this trial, there were 309 patients that were registered. They then had to have their tumor samples sent for central testing for the Schlafen-11 expression.

One thing that I think is important to bring up is that in small cell lung cancer, there's this belief that it's really hard to get tissue samples from small cell lung cancer and it's a difficult thing logistically because it's just a lot harder to access these tumors. But interestingly, in this trial, 80% of patients had tumors that were evaluable for the biomarker, and the median time to the test result was only 7 days. So patients were able to get their tumor tested, get it sent out, get results in a rapid manner, and then be randomized based on these results. The primary endpoint for this trial was progression-free survival, and the primary endpoint was met. Progression-free survival was 4.2 months versus 2.8 months.

Now, I think many people will say the magnitude of benefit here is not very much, but it's small cell lung cancer, and we don't have a lot of positive trials in this space, and we also don't have many trials that have used a biomarker to direct therapy. So I think for those reasons, it's really exciting to see these results. It was also conducted within a cooperative group with multiple different sites across the United States, and the fact of the matter is that we can do trials like this in small cell lung cancer patients, and I think it will sort of serve as a precedent for future trial design. Now, the overall survival for the trial is still premature. It didn't look that much different with the PARP inhibitor, but that doesn't mean that, again, things could change with more follow-up. And I really like the approach of this trial design, and I'm excited to see biomarker-driven trials in small cell lung cancer. Charu and Melina, what do you guys think about this study? And what do you think about our small cell lung cancer patients and our ability to conduct future trials like this?

Dr. Aggarwal: I think this is certainly an advance. As you pointed out, Kristin, it shows us that we can conduct trials in the space. I think it offers a lens into the potential of personalized therapy in small cell lung cancer, which has eluded us for a very long time. The standard of small cell lung cancer has not changed significantly for a very long time, so I think this is very exciting and can't wait to see more things come in the future.

Dr. Marmarelis: Yeah, I agree. I think we've always been asking for additional biomarkers, especially in such a difficult disease like small cell. And so this is really exciting to see potential biomarkers and that it was feasible to actually pose that question and study it. So that part's really exciting.

Dr. Higgins: Great. And I should also say I was not involved in the study, and I'm not associated with any of the pharmaceutical companies that were involved in the study for S1929. And the final study that we wanted to talk about was the phase III LUNAR study, and this is sort of a different type of trial in the setting of advanced non-small cell lung cancer. It was studying tumor treatment fields with standard of care in metastatic non-small cell lung cancer after progression with platinum-based therapies.

And first, I just want to step back and explain what tumor treating fields are. Tumor treating fields are applied to a patient with a transducer that's placed on the skin, and what it does is it applies an electrical field, and that disrupts mitosis when the cancer cells are trying to divide. And the mechanism of cell death is a little bit unclear. There are sort of many mechanisms that are postulated, one of which is immunogenic cell death, but we don't really know, I think, what's happening. But there have been studies that show improved results with tumor treating fields and other diseases. For example, particularly in glioblastoma multiforme, tumor treating fields are used in combination with surgery, radiation, and temozolomide (Temodar). So it's something that's being used in other disease sites, and this is some of the early data that we've seen in metastatic non-small cell lung cancer.

And so in this trial, 276 patients were randomized to tumor treating fields plus standard of care or standard of care alone. Now, I should mention that this trial began enrolling patients in 2016, and so the standard of care was very different. After platinum-based therapies, the standard was considered docetaxel. Of course, platinum-based therapy alone for frontline treatment of advanced non-small cell lung cancer is also not the standard of care anymore. And so I think with that in the background, it does make interpretation of these results somewhat difficult, and that's probably the major caveat to this study. But nonetheless, patients were randomized, 276 patients. The primary endpoint of the study was overall survival. They were looking at progression-free survival and overall response rates as secondary endpoints as well as overall survival in patients that received immunotherapy versus just chemotherapy alone. And the trial was positive. Overall survival was improved. The median overall survival was 13.2 months for patients that received tumor treating fields with standard of care versus 9.9 months for standard of care alone. If you look at 3-year survival, it was 18% versus 7%.

I think this is a new type of therapy for our patients with non-small cell lung cancer. It is somewhat of a difficult thing to wear the transducer, and you have to wear it for many, many hours. So that is one thing that I think can be difficult for patients that are using this treatment, but nonetheless, it is something new for advanced non-small cell lung cancer. I do know that the technology of tumor treating fields is being studied in other settings for non-small cell lung cancer, for stage III non-small cell lung cancer, for example, and also in the frontline setting. I think this trial kind of speaks to the fact that the landscape of advanced non-small cell lung cancer is changing so rapidly, and when we're studying something novel, we have to make sure that we make these trials feasible for enrollment so that we can get them completed rapidly, and we can get a readout and it doesn't become obsolete based on this shift in the standard of care. So I think it just really kind of drives home that we need to make sure that we're taking that into account with trial design. It's not standard of care changing right now, but it'll be interesting to see how the data evolves over time. Melina, I'm interested to hear your point of view because I know that these can be used in mesothelioma, maybe not that frequently. What is your experience with tumor treating fields, if any?

Dr. Marmarelis: Tumor treating fields are approved as a device in pleural mesothelioma in the first-line setting in combination with chemotherapy. They have been used off-label in other settings, but that's the device approval. The trial that looked at tumor treating fields in mesothelioma was a single-arm trial, so there was no control arm, and it was really actually just looking at the safety of the device. So I have not used it personally in mesothelioma, although I know of patients and I know of real-world studies looking at its use, and I think it's potentially an interesting modality of treatment, especially in combination with immunotherapy, given that it really doesn't have a lot of additive toxicity. But I think the question is really, which patients are benefiting from it, and which patients are able to actually wear the vest in the case of mesothelioma?

Dr. Higgins: Yeah. Any thoughts, Charu?

Dr. Aggarwal: I agree, and I think this is going to be largely driven by patient experience. I think this is going to be quite onerous to wear this, carry the suitcase, so I would be very interested in patient reported outcomes as well as patient experiences and stories, which will really drive our use here.

Dr. Higgins: Yeah, that's a great point. I should say that this trial was sponsored by Novocure. My institution does have other Novocure studies underway, and we receive research funding, but I was not involved in the study, and I did not personally receive any research funding.

Dr. Aggarwal: Thank you, Kristin. This has been a wonderful review of practice-changing and some promising research that came out of the ASCO Annual Meeting. I hope our listeners enjoyed it, and we'll be sure to update you with the next annual research conference. Thank you, everyone.

ASCO: Thank you, Dr. Aggarwal, Dr. Marmarelis, and Dr. Higgins.

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