Colorectal cancer (CRC) is a leading cause of cancer deaths globally. Advances in early detection have improved survival rates, but patients diagnosed with metastatic CRC still have stubbornly poor 5-year survival rates. Standard treatments for CRC include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, but alternative immuno-oncology therapies are showing promising results in CRC patients. Here we highlight advances in immuno-oncology therapies that are being used to treat CRC patients or are being pursued in preclinical and clinical studies.
Molecular genetic analysis of CRC tumors is a critical diagnostic tool for classifying and treating this cancer. CRC tumors are typically classified as mismatch repair-deficient/microsatellite instability-high (dMMR—MSI-H) tumors, which have a high overall mutation burden, or mismatch repair-proficient/microsatellite instability-low (pMMR—MSI-L) tumors, which have a lower mutation burden.1 Defects in MMR are associated with the accumulation of mutations and are caused by defects in mismatch repair proteins, and these defects are typically detected by frame-shift mutations in DNA repeat regions known as microsatellites. Mutations in the BRAF oncogene, particularly the activating V600E mutation, comprise a distinct subset of CRC. BRAF is a component of the mitogen activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway that normally functions downstream of the epidermal growth factor receptor to regulate transcription of genes involved in cellular growth and survival, but the BRAF-V600E mutation results in constitutive activation of BRAF and uncontrolled cellular proliferation and tumor growth2.
Immuno-oncology approaches that target immune checkpoint blockade have proven effective for several cancers, including CRC. T cells can initiate effective anti-tumor responses under ideal conditions, but the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment of some cancer types inhibits T cell activation, usually through engagement of immune checkpoint molecules like PD-1 and CTLA4. For more than a decade, the development and use of immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) has transformed treatment of melanoma3,4 and non-small cell lung cancer5,6. The first FDA-approved treatments include a monoclonal antibody (mAb) that targets CTLA4 (ipilimumab) and two mAbs that target PD-1 (pembrolizumab and nivolumab). These early studies suggested that tumors with high mutation burdens respond well to ICI, which may be due in part to the generation and presentation of tumor neoantigens that are recognized as non-self and can be targeted by cytotoxic T cells7.
CRC tumors with the dMMR—MSI-H signature have a high mutational burden and typically have a high level CD4+ and CD8+ tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs). These cells have shown elevated expression of PD-1, PD-L1 and CTLA4, which suggests that they may respond well to ICIs8. Indeed, several recent clinical studies have shown improvements with overall survival and progression-free survival in patients treated with individual or combined ICIs that target PD-1, and current studies are evaluating next-generation PD-1 inhibitors combined with chemotherapy and/or other biologics such as an anti-VEGF mAb9.
In contrast, patients with pMMR–MSI-L have shown poor responses to PD-1 or CTLA4 blockade alone or in combination, which has led to the development of trials that explore different treatment combinations, including inhibitors of the MAPK pathway or angiogenesis10.
Next Generation Treatments
Several cutting-edge immuno-oncology therapies are being explored for the treatment of CRC. Beyond combinations of individual antibodies, researchers are engineering bispecific antibodies that bind to tumor cells and T cells simultaneously to enhance anti-tumor T cell responses. One such bispecific antibody, CEA-TCB, is being tested in phase I trials alone or in combination with anti-PD-L1 to treat metastatic CRC11. Another novel approach includes adoptive cell therapies like chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells, which are T cells collected from the tumor tissue or peripheral blood of a patient and engineered to bind to tumor antigens and potentiate anti-tumor responses. Oncolytic virus and bacteria-based vaccines are also being studied as potential CRC treatments.
The advancement of immuno-oncology is already transforming the treatment of CRC and will contribute to better outcomes for all types of CRC in the decades to come.
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