Research Highlights from ESMO Congress 2022, with David Ilson, MD, PhD, FASCO, Sumanta Pal, MD, FASCO, and Tian Zhang, MD

November 10, 2022
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In this podcast, Cancer.Net Editorial Board members discuss new research in gastrointestinal and genitourinary cancers presented at this year’s ESMO Congress, held September 9-13 in Paris, France. Dr. David Ilson discusses treatment advances in liver, colorectal, and gastric, or stomach, cancers. Dr. Sumanta (Monty) Pal and Dr. Tian Zhang discuss new research in kidney, bladder, and prostate cancers.



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In this podcast, Cancer.Net Editorial Board members discuss new research in gastrointestinal and genitourinary cancers presented at this year’s ESMO Congress, held September 9-13 in Paris, France.

First, Dr. David Ilson discusses treatment advances in liver, colorectal, and gastric, or stomach, cancers. Dr. Ilson is an attending physician and member at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.

You can view Dr. Ilson’s disclosures at Cancer.Net.

Dr. Ilson: Hi, I'm Dr. David Ilson from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. I'm a GI medical oncologist, and it's my pleasure today to review some important presentations in GI cancers from the recent ESMO meeting in Paris from 2022. I have no relevant relationships to disclose for this discussion. So, important presentations were made in hepatocellular cancer, in colorectal cancer, and gastric and other cancers, and I'm going to highlight some of the key presentations from the meeting. 

One of the most anxiously awaited presentations was one in hepatocellular or liver cancer. For patients that have advanced disease who are not candidates for surgery or local treatments, standard therapy now, it used to be lenvatinib and sorafenib, and that's now been replaced by the combination of an immunotherapy drug, atezolizumab combined with the drug bevacizumab. That's the new standard of care. And recently, we had a promising data for another immunotherapy combination using the drug durvalumab combined with tremelimumab.

So what we saw this year was another important global study looking at the first-line use of immunotherapy in hepatocellular cancer. This trial took 794 patients with advanced hepatocellular cancer and assigned them to a standard treatment with a drug called lenvatinib. Lenvatinib and sorafenib were the old standard treatments for hepatocellular cancer. And lenvatinib alone was compared to a combination of lenvatinib and pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy drug. The primary endpoint was to see whether adding immunotherapy to lenvatinib improved survival. And this was a negative trial. It did not show an improvement in survival for adding pembrolizumab to lenvatinib over lenvatinib alone, and there was really no significant difference in the time that patients were on treatment. The response was slightly higher with the addition of pembrolizumab to lenvatinib, but again there was no survival difference. So this combination will not move forward. And again, as I said earlier, the new standard first-line treatment is atezolizumab plus bevacizumab.

In colorectal cancer, probably one of the most exciting presentations was the use of immunotherapy treatments in locally advanced colon cancer. There is an important subset of colorectal cancer that has what's called an MSI-high status. MSI-high colon cancers are very responsive to immunotherapy drugs, and there has been a lot of interest in patients with localized colorectal cancer using immunotherapy drugs prior to surgery rather than conventional chemotherapy or radiation. So this important trial looked at 112 patients with localized colorectal cancer. Most of the patients were stage 3, and they all were documented to have this MSI-high status, which indicated a higher chance of response to immunotherapy. And patients received a brief course of immunotherapy, 2 doses of the drug nivolumab combined with 1 dose of ipilimumab over only 6 weeks followed by surgery. What they showed in these 112 patients who went to surgery, there was almost 100% response to this treatment. In fact, almost two-thirds of patients had no cancer found at surgery, even only after several weeks of immunotherapy. And in the 112 patients treated, there have been no recurrences in any of these patients.

So it's quite remarkable that immunotherapy could induce a complete remission in two-thirds of patients, and that was only after a few weeks of exposure of the drug. So I think we're going to see more interest in using immunotherapy treatments as a potential pre-surgical treatment for colon cancer. And we could argue with such a high rate of complete remission, if we gave immunotherapy longer, maybe we could consider nonsurgical management, to just keep treating the patients with immunotherapy. This is actually the case that's now been seen in rectal cancer, a recent study presented from my institution where they treated patients with rectal cancer with immunotherapy, and we also achieved 100% remission, and none of the patients in this small study required surgery. So I think this important study, which is called the NICHE-2 trial, indicates a high degree of effectiveness of immunotherapy in MSI-high colon cancers. And certainly, it raises interest in using this as a preoperative treatment and potentially could lead to some patients getting treatment with immunotherapy alone without surgery.

Then I'm going to comment a little bit about advanced metastatic colon cancer. Another important presentation was studying a new drug called fruquintinib. Fruquintinib is an oral drug that targets the VEGF pathway, which is an angiogenesis pathway in colon cancer. Standard treatment for colon cancer when it's stage 4 disease is now use of chemotherapy, like FOLFOX and FOLFIRI, drugs like bevacizumab, cetuximab, and panitumumab. And in more chemotherapy-resistant cancers, we use drugs like regorafenib and TAS-102. So this trial looked at a large group of patients, over 690 patients who had received all conventional treatments. They had progressive disease on all conventional treatments, including the late-line drugs regorafenib and TAS-102. And this was a placebo-controlled trial in which patients either received the drug fruquintinib or they received placebo plus supportive care. It was reasonable to offer a placebo in this trial because there really was no other standard treatment option for these patients. The primary endpoint of overall survival was improved with fruquintinib. Survival was improved with a reduction in the risk of death by about 30% and improvement in time on treatment. Very few patients responded to fruquintinib, so this was largely a drug that stabilized the cancer, but it did lead to modest improvements in time on treatment and modest improvements in survival. So this drug may potentially be evaluated as a new treatment option in very chemotherapy-resistant colorectal cancer.

I just want to mention briefly another new class of agents for which we had data presented at the ESMO meeting. These are drugs that inhibit a mutation in their cancer called KRAS G12C. There are promising drugs that target this pathway. And there were 2 drugs that were followed up on at ESMO, one was a drug called sotorasib and another drug was adagrasib. These are drugs that target KRAS G12C mutations in colon cancer. And both of the trials that were presented used these drugs combined with drugs that target the EGFR pathways, so either panitumumab or cetuximab, and very encouraging responses were seen on these trials. The trial that looked at the combination of adagrasib plus cetuximab achieved a response in about 46% of patients, which is very encouraging. The trial that studied sotorasib, combined sotorasib with panitumumab, and they observed a 30% response, and some of these responses were durable. So the take-home message is that these drugs, adagrasib and sotorasib, are promising new agents to target KRAS G12C mutations in patients with advanced colon cancer and indicate that we may get even a higher degree of activity when we add EGFR-targeted drugs including panitumumab or cetuximab to these agents.

So the other area that I want to comment on is gastric cancer. Recently, in the United States, we had a regulatory approval for the drug trastuzumab deruxtecan in patients who have HER2-positive gastric cancer that's advanced and is being treated with chemotherapy alone, HER-2-positive patients who had received previous trastuzumab or Herceptin. So trastuzumab deruxtecan is a promising drug used in patients that develop resistance to trastuzumab. So there was an update of the trial called Gastric-DESTINY02, which was a phase 2 trial of trastuzumab deruxtecan in Wwestern patients as a second-line treatment for patients with HER2-positive gastric cancer, and the updated analysis again showed a promising response in 40% of patients. The response duration was about 8 months, and patients achieved a survival of a year or more. So this updated presentation really reinforced that this is an active drug for patients with HER2-positive gastric cancer whose disease progresses on previous treatment with trastuzumab.

So this was a very exciting ESMO meeting. There were a lot of other studies and important presentations, but I've tried to highlight today what I think are the most important as we move forward in trying to identify new treatments for patients.

ASCO: Thank you, Dr. Ilson.

Next, Dr. Sumanta (Monty) Pal and Dr. Tian Zhang discuss new research in kidney, bladder, and prostate cancers.

Dr. Pal is the co-director of City of Hope's Kidney Cancer Program and is the head of the kidney and bladder cancer disease team at the institution. Dr. Zhang is an Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center and is a medical oncologist at the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center.

You can view disclosures for Dr. Pal and Dr. Zhang at Cancer.Net.

Dr. Pal: Welcome to this Cancer.Net podcast. My name is Monty Pal. I'm a medical oncologist in the City of Hope in Los Angeles. I'm thrilled to be here today with my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Tian Zhang from UT Southwestern. Tian, mind giving us a quick intro?

Dr. Zhang: Hi, Monty. Great to be here with you today. Tian Zhang at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas, where I'm a GU medical oncologist. I'm really excited to talk through the ESMO trials with you today.

Dr. Pal: A little bit of housekeeping first. Let's go ahead and get some of our disclosures out of the way. I get travel support from CRISPR Therapeutics and from Ipsen. Tian, how about you?

Dr. Zhang: Sure. I've received honoraria from Exelixis, BMS, Genentech, AstraZeneca, and Janssen, all relevant to our discussion today.

Dr. Pal: Very good, very good. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. We've got a lot to talk about in about 15 minutes. The first thing that I wanted to chat about is adjuvant therapy. First of all, before we dive into the weeds here, can you just kind of tell our audience what adjuvant therapy is in broad strokes?

Dr. Zhang: In kidney cancer, we think a lot about how we might prevent disease recurrence after surgery. So adjuvant treatment refers to systemic treatment that's given after a big surgery. And so in kidney cancer, that's usually after nephrectomy or removal of the kidney.

Dr. Pal: Excellent, excellent. You beat me to the punchline. We are going to focus on kidney cancer, no doubt. This year at the European Society of Medical Oncology, or ESMO, meeting, which was held in early September, we actually had some really key studies presented in this space, one of which I'll disclose that I led. Studies I would say were maybe a little bit disheartening there, but nonetheless, I do think we can learn a lot from them. One of these trials was called PROSPER. This was a really interesting study that actually didn't just look at adjuvant therapy but actually looked at treatment before surgery, which we called neoadjuvant therapy. Tian, can you kind of walk us through the design of that trial really quickly?

Dr. Zhang: This was a trial done in the ECOG Cooperative Group, and patients were randomized to receiving either nivolumab, which is an immune checkpoint inhibitor, before surgery, followed by a year of nivolumab after surgery, or to surgery and observation with ongoing scans. So it was really trying to look at a perioperative approach of using nivolumab.

Dr. Pal: So how about this? Maybe we'll kind of discuss some of these results in amalgam, but maybe let's go through these trial designs first. The second trial that was highlighted this year at ESMO was called IMmotion010. That's one thing that I just love about these studies. They all have very clever names. I don't know what an IMmotion is, but tell us about IMmotion010 and what that trial design looked like.

Dr. Zhang: Sure. So IMmotion010, again, also was an adjuvant trial for resected intermediate- and high-risk kidney cancers, randomized folks to either atezolizumab for a year or placebo for a year. And so this is in the context of having had resected kidney cancers and following folks for the treatment results, and the primary endpoint there was disease-free survival.

Dr. Pal: Okay. So we've got an immune therapy called nivolumab and the PROSPER trial that was looked at before and after surgery. We've got atezolizumab, a different checkpoint inhibitor that was looked at following surgery. Tell us about the third trial. This is the last study in the space called CheckMate 914. What did that trial look at?

Dr. Zhang: That one, again, also a phase 3 adjuvant trial, enrolling folks after surgery that had high-risk kidney cancer and randomized to either the combination of nivolumab with ipilimumab, both checkpoint inhibitors versus placebo. And again, this treated patients for about 6 months and also primary endpoint of disease-free survival.

Dr. Pal: Now, whenever we do these studies, we always define them as being positive or negative, and that's really not meant to sort of cast any aspersions on how well the study was done or any really sentiments around the trial itself. It's really objective, and it's based on whether or not a study hits what we define ahead of the trial as being called a primary endpoint. So we actually, in these studies, looked at a primary endpoint of something called recurrence-free survival. And so that's really the proportion of patients who actually are living on without any sort of recurrence of their kidney cancer. I think it might be easy enough to sort of describe whether or not these trials hit that endpoint were positive or negative. What was the final report here on these trials, Tian?

Dr. Zhang: Well, Monty, I think all 3 of these trials were, quote-unquote, "negative," and we all had high hopes for all 3 of these trials. And certainly, many, many patients participated, and we will learn eventually a lot from these trials. But none of these 3 met their prespecified primary endpoint of recurrence-free survival endpoint.

Dr. Pal: So this is a little bit tricky because we did have these 3 negative studies presented at ESMO this year, but there was 1 positive trial that's adjuvant or postoperative space presented previously and then now published, actually, in the New England Journal of Medicine with an FDA approval to boot. Can you tell us about that, Tian?

Dr. Zhang: Well, that one was called KEYNOTE-564 and randomized patients to either a year of pembrolizumab or placebo. And so you're absolutely right. It did show an improvement in disease-free survival comparing pembrolizumab with placebo. And so pembrolizumab is approved in this adjuvant setting after nephrectomy.

Dr. Pal: And so this can be kind of a tough space because I can imagine our listeners are hearing this saying, "OK. Well, at ESMO, we've got 3 negative trials looking at postoperative therapy, and we've got 1 positive trial looking at pembrolizumab in the space." So what's one to do in this setting? What are you telling patients these days about whether or not to use adjuvant treatment for kidney cancer?

Dr. Zhang: Yeah. I think it's a conversation that patients have with their oncologist after surgery, and it really depends on their own risk factors, their clinical and pathologic features at the time of resection. It depends a lot on patient preferences and their own priorities and things such as their tolerance for toxicity or how often they're coming into the treatment center. And I do think this is a time point where they have a shared decision-making that we can help our patients understand the totality of the data and then decide if a year of pembrolizumab is worthwhile or if they'd rather continue with surveillance after surgery.

Dr. Pal: I totally agree with you, and I love that term “shared decision-making,” because it's never one of those situations where I walk into the clinic room and say, "Here's what you're going to do." And it's also never the situation where the patient walks into the clinic room and says, "Here's what I want." It's always this really sort of mutual process, isn't it, where you sort of look at a patient's clinical state. You look at some of the features under the microscope, but then it comes down to really, really lengthy and personal discussions around what that patient wants to get out of treatment. So I think that's very well said, Tian. 

I'm going to move to actually a different setting, which is termed “metastatic disease.” So we've talked about localized kidney cancer, where the disease is sort of confined to the kidney for the most part. We talked about what we do after we remove visible evidence of disease. But there is, unfortunately, a number of patients where we can't necessarily remove all the disease burden. So we lean more heavily on what we call systemic treatments. These are treatments that enter into the bloodstream either by mouth or through the veins. And in kidney cancer, just to give you a really, really brief synopsis, there's been this huge evolution over time. When I started in the field, it was really the advent of using a single oral therapy for kidney cancer. And over the next five 5 years, we sort of saw this evolution towards using doublet therapies, which is a mix of pills and IVs or maybe IVs alone. And more recently, there's been a lot of excitement. You can probably see where this is going, right? We've looked at 1 drug, and it works. We've looked at 2 drugs, and they seem to work. Logic would perhaps suggest that maybe you could get away with using 3 drugs in concert. So, Tian, this year at ESMO, there was a really important trial called COSMIC-313 that looked at 3 drugs versus 2 drugs. Can you tell us a little bit more about the design of the study?

Dr. Zhang: COSMIC-313, the large phase 3 study, which randomized more than 850 patients to either the triplet, as you're speaking of, the cabozantinib, nivolumab, and ipilimumab versus nivolumab and ipilimumab with placebo standing in for cabozantinib. And so this was a very large trial, looking particularly at progression-free survival, comparing the triplet versus the immunotherapy doublet.

Dr. Pal: And then tell us about the results of this because I have to tell you. I mean, I spent a lot of time looking over this, and I struggled with the end results a little bit. We talked about the primary endpoint of studies when we were discussing adjuvant therapy. And one of the things we'd mentioned is that you decide on this beforehand. And the primary endpoint in this trial was actually the delay in cancer growth. And as you pointed out, the study met that endpoint. But how do you interpret the results overall? How are you incorporating triplet therapy now?

Dr. Zhang: Sure. I think it did certainly meet the progression-free survival primary endpoint. The median was not reached for the triplet versus 11.3 months for the doublet. And so importantly, I think it was a, quote-unquote, "positive trial." But how are we using this? Well, we have not seen the overall survival data of these patients. And so when you're thinking about combining all 3 drugs in the frontline setting, I think it's really important to think about what might come after and whether these folks truly live longer with using all 3 upfront versus a sequential approach. So I think the jury is still out. It certainly met its primary endpoint, and it's quite promising. But I'm still waiting for the overall survival data to really inform or change my practice.

Dr. Pal: I've got to agree with you there. One of the things that we always discussed in clinic is whether or not a particular treatment strategy is going to increase longevity. It comes up in every conversation, I would say, whenever we're thinking about approaching a new line of treatment. And I wish I could say definitively that this triplet strategy improves longevity, but to be totally fair, that data just doesn't exist yet. So it's a really difficult conversation. I agree with you. Maybe a little pause before we start incorporating triplets.

So I've got to say, it was certainly a big year for kidney cancer, one of my fellows put this table together, and it really showed that this year amongst the past maybe 10 years in kidney cancer, we had more big phase 3 trials being reported as more than any year previously. But there are also some pretty key developments in other diseases that you and I treat, Tian, and one of those is bladder cancer. And a trial that I think was really quite important has the name EV-103. Tough name to remember, but it actually looked at a disease space that I think can be a bit of a challenge for us, and that's the patient who is presenting in the clinic has actually advanced bladder cancers spread to other parts of the body and is quite ill and perhaps can't receive conventional aggressive chemotherapy with a drug called cisplatin. So what did this proportion of EV-103 that was presented show us?

Dr. Zhang: Well, people hear about Cohort K thrown around, and so this trial actually has had multiple cohorts. And this particular cohort came out of some really exciting data from their dose escalation studies, and also Cohort A, where patients were treated with an antibody drug conjugate, this enfortumab vedotin, or EV, with an immune checkpoint inhibitor called pembrolizumab. And in the early cohort of 40 patients, they saw a pretty high objective response rate. That means the rate of patients where tumors were shrinking. And so that was about 70% of those 40 patients had objective responses. And so they designed this Cohort K to randomize patients to either enfortumab vedotin with pembrolizumab or enfortumab vedotin on its own, which has been approved in refractory metastatic urothelial cancer but particularly for first-line cisplatin-ineligible patient population. And so they randomized about 150 patients in the setting and looked at objective responses, and I agree with you. Certainly, very promising in terms of having objective response rate of about 65% and compared with enfortumab vedotin on its own, which came in around 45%. It does seem that this combination has more activity than the monotherapy.

Dr. Pal: Yeah. That's a great summary. And to the patients out there listening, when we talk about responses, we're talking about pretty deep responses here, meaning 30% or more reductions in the size of tumors. And Tian mentions that you've got 65% to 70% of patients with these responses. It really does entail a sizable reduction, not just a small decrease in the volume of tumors. And I'm telling you, just from having been in the scene for 15 years now, I mean, it's just remarkable sort of progress that we're making. 

We're going to wrap up by talking about prostate cancer, and just to really describe some overarching results. So there's a setting in prostate cancer that I always find to be a bit of a challenge, and these are patients who have had surgery for their prostate cancer. So extensively no visible spread of their disease, but they start having their PSA creep up afterwards. And there was a trial that sort of addressed that. Tian, can you give us the sort of quick and dirty summary of the study?

Dr. Zhang: Sure. So we call this PSA recurrence or biochemical recurrence setting. And this trial was led by Dr. Rahul Aggarwal in the Alliance Cooperative Group. But everyone who had biochemical recurrence were randomized to receiving androgen deprivation therapy alone, which is usually our standard of care; a combination of that androgen deprivation therapy with apalutamide, which is an androgen receptor blocker; or the combination of a triplet of the androgen deprivation therapy, the apalutamide, and then an abiraterone acetate, which is a blocker of steroid synthesis in the adrenal glands. And so this trial enrolled ultimately about 500 patients and randomized them 1 to 1 to 1 to these 3 cohorts. And interestingly, the combinations of either the androgen receptor, androgen deprivation therapy with apalutamide or the triplet with combined abiraterone acetate all prolonged PSA progression-free survival compared to androgen deprivation therapy alone. So I think it was a really well-done study in the cooperative groups and helps answer some questions around intensifying treatment in that biochemical recurrent space.

Dr. Pal: Yeah. These cooperative groups studies, each one of them are so critical. These are just funded by our federal government, and they really offer us a chance to really ask pure questions, so really, really important study design. And maybe in 30 seconds, let's go over this last study over here. I don't want to keep our listeners on for too long, but there was a study called PROpel. Again, you got to love these study names. So this PROpel study looked at advanced prostate cancer. So again, this is prostate cancer where the disease has spread from the prostate to other organ systems. This is potentially a new paradigm for the disease. Before, we used to just basically give everybody hormone therapy in this setting. We've doubled down and given patients more advanced hormonal therapy with drugs like abiraterone that you alluded to, but now there's this potential to use targeted treatments. And maybe you can tell us a little bit about how that's been incorporated in PROpel, Tian.

Dr. Zhang: Sure. Well, PROpel randomized patients to a combination of abiraterone with olaparib, which is what we call PARP inhibitor, and it blocks DNA damage repair, basically, in cancer cells. And olaparib has been approved as a single agent in more refractory, metastatic, castration-resistant prostate cancer. And so this trial randomized folks with a combination in sort of earlier lines of castration-resistant disease to either that combination or abiraterone with placebo. We saw earlier this year, actually, that the primary endpoint was improved for all comers, but I don't know if we saw some more subgroup analysis of patients with BRCA alterations and also with homologous recombination repair alterations. And I think that's very important, the fact that we saw more of an improvement in those subpopulations than those patients without the BRCA alterations or the homologous recombination repair mutations.

Dr. Pal: Excellent. Excellent summary. I think that's about all that we've got time for today. New paradigms in prostate cancer and bladder cancer potentially and a massive amount of new data in kidney cancer to things going forward with clinical practice from ESMO 2022. Tian, thanks so much for joining me today, and I hope everyone listening enjoyed this as well.

Dr. Zhang: Thanks, Monty. Take care.

ASCO: Thank you, Dr. Pal and Dr. Zhang.

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